Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Considers the Nomination of Rep. Debra Haaland to Be Secretary of Interior

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week held a twopart hearing to consider the nomination of Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM) for Secretary of the Interior. Committee Republicans repeatedly questioned her about President Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the administration’s 60-day suspension of oil and gas leasing on public lands, and Rep. Haaland’s record of opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure, grazing, and trapping on federal lands.

Rep. Haaland’s answers were consistently non-substantive. She declined to say whether she stands by her previously stated positions. As a candidate or Member of Congress, Haaland has said she “wholeheartedly [opposes] fracking and drilling on public lands,” wants to “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” will “vote against all new fossil fuel infrastructure,” thinks “it’d be a great idea to stop all oil and gas leasing on public lands,” “100% supports a Green New Deal,” and believes Republicans “do not believe in science.”

Rep. Haaland also declined to explain the reasoning behind those positions, or explain how her policy views might affect her decisions as Interior Secretary. She sometimes implied her views are not relevant, since her role in Congress has been to represent her district, whereas the role of a cabinet secretary is to represent all the people.

However, as Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) pointed out, “some of your prior positions—opposed to Keystone, opposed to Dakota Access, calling for bans on trapping on all public lands, stopping [fossil] energy [infrastructure] on all public lands—clearly impacts more people than just your constituents.” He was not convinced she could simply set aside policy commitments that would mostly affect people “outside of the First District of New Mexico.”

Haaland also suggested that her policy views should not trouble Republicans because as Interior Secretary her only agenda would be President Biden’s agenda. But as Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pointed out, a department head’s job is not just to carry out the president’s agenda but also to inform and guide it by making recommendations. Alas, her prior views and actions inspire no confidence she would ever check or moderate administration policy.

Sen. James Risch (R-ID) had to ask Haaland four times whether she supports President Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline. She finally half-acknowledged that she does: “Senator, if I support President Biden’s agenda, I assume you could take my answer as a yes.” When asked why she supports it, Haaland replied: “Well, one of the reasons why is that I support President Biden. I think he’s thought deeply about these things and he cares deeply about our environment.” Risch then clarified the obvious: “I am looking for your reasons why you think that’s a good idea.” Haaland replied that she does not have a “full answer” but knows “there are a lot of people who care deeply about our environment and that is one area that folks have been passionate about.”

Haaland repeatedly said all her decisions as secretary would be informed by science. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) wondered how cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline—an action destroying 11,000 jobs—squares with environmental science. The Obama State Department concluded that blocking the pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions. America would still import Canadian oil, only by less energy efficient means. That apparently was news to Rep. Haaland, who said she would “be happy to be briefed on any report.”

Sen. Daines pointed out that the science-based criterion for determining whether the grizzly bear has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the federal endangered species list and placed under state conservation management is a population of 500 bears, but the population is now estimated at 750 and could be as high as 1,000. Yet, Rep. Haaland co-sponsored legislation requiring that the grizzly to be kept on the endangered species list “in perpetuity.” He asked: “Why would you sponsor a bill like that when science tells us the bear population is well above recovery targets?” Haaland replied: “I imagine at the time, I was caring about the bears.”

Many of the exchanges dealt with the Interior Department’s order to suspend oil and gas leasing on federal lands for 60 days. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted that climate change was a rationale for the suspension and asked Haaland if she was aware of any evidence banning oil and gas production on federal lands would reduce global fossil fuel consumption. “No Sir,” she replied, but said “everyone should work together.” Barrasso noted that no other oil and gas producing nation—not Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Iran—has indicated any desire to ban their production. The leasing ban will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its only effect will be to advantage foreign competitors at the expense of American jobs.

On this topic, I think Committee Republicans were not aggressive enough. The Biden administration can review the federal leasing program without shutting it down. Rep. Haaland claims the pause is not disruptive because it is temporary and does not apply to existing leases. However, according to Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, the suspension is “causing delays in routine approvals for oil and gas companies holding valid drilling permits.”

Worse, like President Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, suspending oil and gas leasing without warning on Inauguration Day seems calculated to inject fear into resource producers and the capital markets that support them.  And it remains to be seen whether the suspension will be temporary.