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Biden's pick for Interior secretary faces intense scrutiny from Barrasso
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Biden's pick for Interior secretary faces intense scrutiny from Barrasso

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Interior nominee Haaland vows 'balance' on energy, climate

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is sworn in before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland faced tough questions from Wyoming’s senior senator during her first day of a confirmation hearing for Interior Department secretary.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday morning, Haaland said she was committed to protecting the nation’s vast public lands, creating new energy jobs, supporting resource-dependent communities and upholding the rights of tribal nations.

She repeatedly expressed a willingness to collaborate with both Democrats and Republicans to “strike the right balance,” between the nation’s need to achieve energy independence and transition to a low-carbon economy.

“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” she said during her opening remarks. “I know how important oil and gas revenues are to fund critical services. But we must also recognize that that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.”

Yet during his own opening remarks, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming outlined a string of concerns he had with the nominee’s appointment, including Haaland’s previous statements against fracking and pipeline development.

“I am willing to work with Rep. Haaland and the Biden administration to conserve our national parks and monuments, uphold our nation’s trust responsibilities and protect multiple use of our public lands,” Barrasso stated during opening testimony. “But if Rep. Haaland intends to use the Department of the Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other western states, then I’m going to oppose the nomination.”

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.

However, throughout the charged hearing on Tuesday, Haaland appeared ready to strike a conciliatory position with her Republican colleagues on future fossil fuel development.

Haaland hails from New Mexico — a state, like Wyoming, that depends heavily on revenue from federal oil and gas production each year.

But Haaland noted her state and others needed to diversify their revenue streams, generate new jobs and maintain funding for schools. In doing so, they could avert the pain caused by the “booms and busts” of traditional energy markets.

Even still, coal, oil and natural gas would likely figure into the nation’s energy portfolio in the years ahead, she said.

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“We want to move forward with innovation and all of this for our energy needs,” Haaland said. “(But) I think that’s not going to happen overnight. And so we will absolutely rely on the fossil energy.”

Drilling pauses

President Joe Biden’s recent executive order pausing new oil and gas leasing took center stage during the hearing.

On Jan. 27, Biden issued an executive order pausing new federal oil and gas leasing. The controversial decision sparked fierce opposition from Wyoming’s leaders and officials in other states reliant on federal oil and gas development.

When pressed by Barrasso on Tuesday if the federal government would continue permitting oil and gas wells on public lands under her leadership, Haaland affirmed it would.

Barrasso also interrogated Haaland about her position on coal, copper, lithium and other hard rock mining.

“I believe that if we do these things in a responsible manner and protect the health and safety of workers, I see us moving forward,” she replied. “The Earth is here to provide for us.”

Haaland also dodged several direct questions made by Republican senators about her plans for oil and gas leasing by stressing she would be serving the president and intended to implement his plans.

Ultimately, Haaland underlined her intent to collaborate with lawmakers in resource-dependent states to find the best solutions.

The congresswoman does have a track record of working across the aisle, and earned recognition as one of the most bipartisan freshman senators during her first year in office. Haaland voted in favor of bipartisan legislation affecting Wyoming’s public lands, like the Great American Outdoors Act and America’s Conservation Enhancement Act.

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

The committee will reconvene to continue Haaland’s confirmation hearing at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on Wednesday.

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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