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Rep. Deb Haaland faces down Wyoming senator's opposition during confirmation hearing
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Rep. Deb Haaland faces down Wyoming senator's opposition during confirmation hearing

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Wyoming’s senior senator continued to interrogate Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico during day two of her confirmation hearing for Interior Department secretary on Wednesday, lambasting her for previous statements made in opposition to fossil fuel development.

In turn, Haaland steadily reiterated her commitment to “striking a balance” between natural resources extraction, conservation and trust responsibilities to tribal nations.

“I recognize that the role of a cabinet secretary is far different from that of a congresswoman,” Haaland told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I recognize that I’m not just worried about my one district in New Mexico, but the entire country. I agree that we need to mine responsibly. We also need to be able to ensure that we have that (energy) independence into the future.”

If confirmed as the Interior secretary, Haaland will be expected to carry out key provisions of President Joe Biden’s plans to advance environmental justice, reform tribal consultation and fight climate change. Many of these priorities hinge heavily on pursuing an exit from extracting minerals in federal lands and waters.

It’s a prospect that has stoked intense opposition from Wyoming’s congressional delegates.

The Interior Department plays a significant role in Wyoming, especially when it comes to mineral extraction. It’s the agency charged with conserving and managing development on the nation’s public lands. Although about 10% of oil and gas production nationwide occurs on federal lands and minerals, the proportion is much bigger in Wyoming. About 51% of oil is produced on federal lands here, along with 92% of natural gas.

“We should not undermine American energy production and we should not hurt our own economy,” Barrasso said during his opening remarks. “Yet that is precisely what the Biden administration is doing.”

During her two-day confirmation hearing before the senate committee, Haaland made clear that mining and fossil fuel extraction would still have a role in the country’s future economy.

“This Earth provides us with every single thing we need, and it has for millennia,” she said. “I feel strongly that if we take a lot of care to make sure that we are doing everything we can, we can have those jobs well in the future and our grandchildren should be able to rely on what they get from the Earth as much as we do.”

Interior nominee Deb Haaland is questioned during her confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate.

Nonetheless, Barrasso and other senators continued to aggressively press Haaland on topics ranging from her positions on oil and natural gas leasing and pipeline permitting to the delisting of wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

“I want to make sure you care about the law,” Barraso said during questioning. “There’s a law of the land. Will you commit to doing everything in your power to fight frivolous lawsuits and delist species that government scientists have concluded are fully recovered?”

Haaland confirmed that the Endangered Species Act was “extremely important,” adding that she planned to work in partnership with states, tribes and local communities when making decisions. But before she finished her sentence, Barrasso interrupted.

“I’m talking about the law!” he shouted.

“Sir, I will always follow the law,” Haaland replied.

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During the hearing, Barrasso also cited a letter written by the Northern Arapaho Business Council, the governing body on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

Addressed to the acting secretary of the Interior, the council’s letter urged the Biden administration to rescind a recent executive order pausing new leasing of federal minerals to oil and gas developers. The council also asked the acting Interior secretary to lift a 60-day secretarial order shifting leasing and permitting authority to top officials in the agency.

“Delays in leasing have already negatively impacted small to mid-size operators,” the letter stated. “The longer the orders remain in place, the more revenue will decline and result in additional blows to our economy.”

Barrasso did not mention that the Northern Arapaho Business Council also sent a letter directly to him on Friday endorsing Haaland’s nomination.

State Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Riverton, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, said she was “disheartened” to learn about the letter opposing the Biden administration’s order pausing new oil and gas leasing of federal minerals.

“I know we relied heavily on oil and gas in the past, and I just think (the letter) pulls away from the attention that we, as an Indigenous tribe, need to support Rep. Haaland’s nomination,” she told the Star-Tribune.

She was also upset Barrasso used the letter as evidence to challenge Haaland’s appointment.

“I am disheartened that my senator, of course today, recognized my tribe and its letter because it aligns with his opposition to her nomination,” she noted. “I’m upset that the letter got into the hands of Sen. Barrasso, and I think it should have been released after (the hearing).”

Ultimately, she believes Haaland will be a strong advocate for Wyoming’s interests.

“As frustrating as it was to watch Barrasso’s questioning of Rep. Haaland yesterday,” she continued, “I couldn’t help but think, if she was confirmed, we will have a secretary who knows so much about what it means to live in Wyoming, who honestly knows the economic issues and who will be respectful of people.”

Haaland currently represents New Mexico, a state deeply dependent on oil and natural gas drilling. In 2020, New Mexico received $706 million from the Interior’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue, thanks to oil and gas development on federal lands. That’s more money than any other state in the country. Wyoming is another top recipient of federal oil and gas royalties and received $457 million last year. Curtailing oil and gas development on federal lands could lead to less revenue from the industry for states.

Ta’jin Perez is the deputy director of Western Native Voice, a nonprofit organization representing Indigenous communities across the region. Haaland’s appointment “represents a significant change,” he said. Because of that, many elected officials who want to keep the Interior functioning as it has for several decades have “knee-jerk reactions” to her appointment, he said.

“Rep. Haaland represents somebody who is a consensus maker, but someone who also has the opportunity to make good with the trust responsibilities that the federal government has toward tribes,” Perez said. “There has not been an opportunity for that in the history of Interior, particularly in the modern history of Interior.”

“I think all of that in turn is concerning for individuals who want to maintain the status quo,” Perez added, “both as far as energy extraction, public and federal land use, as well as the relationship between the federal government and tribes.”

A member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, Haaland would be the country’s first Native American cabinet member.

On Wednesday, moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, said he would cast a vote in support of Haaland’s appointment. Manchin’s endorsement means Haaland will likely have enough votes to be confirmed.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry and the environment at @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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