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US Senate confirms Haaland as Interior Secretary

16 March 2021 Kevin Adler

The US Senate voted on 15 March to confirm Debra Haaland as the new Secretary of the Interior Department, by a 51-40 vote.

Haaland, who has served in the US House as a Democrat from New Mexico, becomes the first Native American to lead the agency that manages manages approximately 46 million acres of land held by tribal nations, as well as more than 400 million additional acres in the US West and Alaska.

The Department of the Interior includes the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is responsible for leasing of onshore federal lands for oil and natural gas development, renewable power installations, and has input on permits for pipelines and power lines.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) issued a statement congratulating Haaland "on her historic confirmation," and said it "looks forward to working with the Department of Interior to shape the policies that will determine America's energy future."

API called on Haaland to lift the 90-day pause on leasing for oil and gas production on federal lands, instituted by President Joe Biden by executive order. "As Secretary Haaland takes helm of a department that plays an important role in maintaining access to the nation's vast energy resources, she faces clear choices. We can build on the significant environmental progress the nation has made while simultaneously leading the world in energy production, or we can return to the days of relying on energy from foreign nations with lower environmental standards," API said. "We have a shared goal for a low-carbon future, but this is the wrong approach and will only lead to more foreign energy imports from countries hostile to American interests."

During two days of hearings in February, Haaland spoke about the priorities of the Biden administration to rebuild the economy after the job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to do so in ways that enhance the shift to a greener and more just economy as well.

"The department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities. The president's agenda demonstrates that America's public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production," Haaland said.

Haaland's vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was 11-9, with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican vote for Haaland. Murkowski met with Haaland twice and said that she sought out the views of tribal nations in Alaska, before making her decision. "I'm going to place my trust in Representative Haaland and her team despite some very real misgivings," Murkowski said in a statement.

In the full Senate vote, four Republicans supported Haaland: Murkowski, Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina).

Concern in oil-producing states

Opposition to Haaland during the committee hearings was led by Republicans in oil-producing states. They expressed concern that Haaland will reverse the stance of the Trump administration on drilling for oil and gas on federal lands. BLM approved record acreage for oil and gas leases in the last four years, including millions of acres in the last few weeks of the administration.

Biden's 90-day suspension of leases in order to review the environmental impact permits issued by the Trump administration BLM won plaudits from environmental groups, such such as the Center for Western Priorities and Sierra Club, which have sued over what they called inadequate review.

When Haaland appeared before the Senate committee on February 24 and 25, several Republicans raised the suspension, and they also announced their opposition to Biden's promise to possibly end fracking on federal lands.

When faced with accusations that she's a "radical," Haaland sought to deflect the criticism with reference to her bipartisan record as a legislator, and her commitment to continuing in that vein as Interior secretary.

That was insufficient for some senators. "President Biden has declared war on American energy, crushed jobs and threatened vital education funds for our children," Wyoming Republican John Barrasso said. "Representative Haaland's past statements show she agrees with this strategy."

However, while Haaland did not commit to resuming leasing, she also sought to correct the impression that Republicans were presenting. "He didn't 'ban' new leases; he didn't put a moratorium on new leases," she said to Barrasso. "It's a pause to review the federal fossil program."

Furthermore, the review does not cancel leases that have been granted, she reminded the senators. Fossil fuel production on federal land "will go on for many years," she said. But she added that she believes federal land leasing for wind and solar power sites should be expanded, and this will create jobs and economic growth, as well.

Haaland told the senators that she recognizes that US energy security and reliability comes from an all-of-the-above strategy - at least for a while. "There's no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come," Haaland said. "I will work my heart out for everyone: the families of fossil fuel workers who help build our country; ranchers and farmers who care deeply for their lands; communities with legacies of toxic pollution.... But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed."

One Republican who spoke up on behalf of Haaland was Representative Donald Young, Alaska's only House of Representatives member. He told the Senate committee on the first day of the hearing about his experience serving with her on the public lands panel on the House Natural Resources Committee. "I will say this: She will listen to you," he said. "She and I do not agree on carbon fuels, you know that.… But she works across the aisle."

Posted 16 March 2021 by Kevin Adler, Editor, Climate & Sustainability Group, IHS Markit

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