Senate Votes Today on Rep. Debra Haaland’s Nomination to Be Interior Secretary

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The Senate at 5:30 p.m. today will vote on Interior Secretary nominee Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM). In a statement posted March 11 on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Website, Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) summarizes his reasons for concluding that “Representative Haaland’s policy views and lack of substantive answers disqualify her for this important job.” Although E&E News quoted that sentence, no news outlet, to my knowledge, has reported the reasons, succinctly summarized by Sen. Barrasso, for opposing the nominee’s appointment. So, I aim to do that here, supplemented by excerpts from Rep. Haaland’s confirmation hearing and her written answers to Committee members’ questions.

The evidence Sen. Barrasso summarizes in his March 11 statement begins as follows:

In May of 2019, Representative Haaland said unequivocally in an interview with The Guardian: “I am wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.” 

On her campaign website, she stated she wanted to “keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

On the same site, she pledged to “vote against all new fossil fuel infrastructure.” 

I, along with many other western senators, have consistently opposed nominees who hold such extreme views. 

At her confirmation hearing, Rep. Haaland would neither confirm nor deny whether she still holds those positions, arguing that her past statements and policy actions are irrelevant because President Biden’s agenda will be her agenda, and she will no longer be working for the constituents of one district but for all Americans. That is not very convincing, because a cabinet secretary’s job includes advising the president and involves lobbying for particular policies within the administration.

On the second day of her confirmation hearing, February 24, Sen. Barrasso drilled down on Rep. Haaland’s apparent indifference to the fact that her home state of New Mexico depends on oil and gas royalties for about $3.1 billion, or 39 percent, of its general fund. Her response when asked about the dependence of Western state education and conservation funds on fossil fuel royalties was that President Biden’s “build back better” agenda would “create millions of jobs of the future.” Here is part of the exchange that ensued at 40:20 of the hearing:

Barrasso: Let’s talk about those workers and their jobs of the future because in 2018 you campaigned on eliminating oil and gas production in New Mexico. And you were specifically asked how you would make up for the loss of oil and gas royalties, which the state uses to fund public schools. And your answer was you would vote to legalize cannabis. That was your answer. And you said if we legalize cannabis, and have a new funding stream for our education system, that will help tremendously. That was your statement. Do you still believe that states should replace oil and gas royalties used for public education with taxes on the sale of marijuana? Is that your position?

Haaland: Well, I think the point of that, Ranking Member, was to say that we should diversify our funding streams for education and not just rely on one.

Now, whatever your views may be on legalizing marijuana, adding marijuana revenues to oil and gas royalties would “diversify” funding sources, but substituting marijuana revenues for oil and gas royalties after banning oil and gas production would not. It is also doubtful that New Mexico could scale up marijuana production to the point of providing 39 percent of the state’s general fund.

Sen. Barrasso’s March 11 statement also notes that during the hearing, Rep. Haaland “struggled or refused to answer the basic questions any nominee for the Department of the Interior would be expected to know and answer” and “was unwilling or unable to respond to questions about the department, about resource policy, and about the laws she would be asked to implement.” 

For example, she did not know the Keystone XL Pipeline would actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions, because pipelines are a more energy-efficient mode of transporting oil than trucks or railcars. When asked why the Biden administration “wouldn’t just let [Keystone XL Pipeline] energy workers keep their jobs,” she had “no good answer.”

Sen. Barrasso’s March 11 statement continues: “Senator Risch had to ask her multiple times if she supported shutting down the Keystone Pipeline before she admitted that she did. He then had to ask her multiple times why she thought that was a good idea. She never really gave an answer.” Indeed, her final answer was that “a lot of people who care deeply about our environment” are “passionate about” blocking the project.

Sen. Barrasso’s March 11 statement also reports that Rep. Haaland’s “written answers to the questions for the record were equally vague and unacceptable.” For example, “In one response to a question of mine, she refused to acknowledge that the United States has higher environmental standards for oil and gas production than Russia or Nigeria.” The questions for the record contain numerous other evasive answers.

On October 21, 2019, Rep. Haaland posted the following on Twitter: “Economics play a huge factor in climate change. With energy prices being so low, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.” In his questions for the record, Sen. Barrasso asked her to identify which energy prices she believes are too low. Is it the price of coal, oil, gasoline, residential natural gas, natural gas for industrial uses, or natural gas in electric generation? Each time Rep. Haaland wrote: “I support affordable energy prices for all Americans and understand that prices fluctuate and can hurt consumers.”

Sen. Barrasso asked whether Rep. Haaland would agree with Obama administration Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who told The Wall Street Journal in December 2012: “Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels of Europe.” Does she believe the Biden administration should try to boost U.S. gas prices to European levels? Haaland replied: “I am not familiar with this article from over 12 years ago.” As if she could not look it up on the Internet now, or has no opinion about whether European-level gasoline prices would be a good thing even without reading that article.

She continued: “As I said at the hearing, I support the Biden energy and climate plan, which aims to boost deployment of clean energy, create millions of good-paying jobs, and I support affordable energy for all Americans.” But that, of course, begs the question. Does your plan to “boost deployment of clean energy” aim to penalize—and thereby raise the price of—the fossil fuel resources that supply 80 percent of American energy?

Asked which nations would likely supplant the United States as the leader in world energy production if our nation lost that position, Rep. Haaland answered: “I support President Biden’s plans to make America a leader on energy innovation technology to create jobs and address climate change.” It has apparently not occurred to her that innovative technology is what enabled American oil and gas companies to achieve their current position of world leadership.

Asked whether Russia or Saudi Arabia should replace the United States as a source of global energy production, and if not, how the Biden administration could prevent that from happening, Rep. Haaland again replied: “I support President Biden’s plans to make America a leader on energy innovation technology to create jobs and address climate change.”

Other Committee members also submitted questions for the record. Sen. James Risch (R-ID), noting (a) that it takes seven to 10 years to get a hard rock mine through the federal permitting process, and (b) that a shift to “green” technologies is projected to create a surge in demand for materials, asked Rep. Haaland for her ideas on how to remedy inefficiencies in the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). She pledged if confirmed to take a “balanced approach” to oversee mining and “work closely with the Council on Environmental Quality if called upon to address policy questions about NEPA.” So, apparently no ideas on NEPA right now, or at least none she is willing to divulge.

Asked by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) whether she supports creating a revenue sharing arrangement for wind and solar power development on federal lands, similar to the royalties provided by oil and gas operations to local communities, Rep. Haaland said she looks forward to learning more about that. When asked by Sen. Daines whether she believes mining operations on federal lands have better or worse environmental and labor records than mining operations in China, Indonesia, Russia, Venezuela, or the Congo, Rep. Haaland replied: “I am not familiar with those countries’ environmental rules.”

A Trump administration Endangered Species Act (ESA) rulemaking defined “foreseeable future” to mean “as far into the future” as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) “can reasonably determine” threats to species and their responses. Rep. Haaland opposed the rulemaking. Sen. Daines asked her to explain how the agency can foresee the consequences of actions in the future “beyond what they can reasonably determine.” Rep. Haaland replied: “If confirmed I look forward to learning more about this particular part of the FWS decision making process under the ESA from Interior staff.”

Sen. Barrasso’s March 11 statement concludes as follows:

The American people deserve straight answers from the potential secretary about the law, about the rules, and about the regulations that are going to affect so many lives and livelihoods. She gave very few of those at her nomination hearing and in her written responses.  Representative Haaland’s extreme views, co-sponsorship of catastrophic legislation [i.e., the Green New Deal], and lack of responsiveness disqualify her for this important position as secretary of the interior. If she is allowed to implement her Green New Deal-inspired policies at the Department of the Interior, the results for America’s energy supply and economy will be catastrophic.