Imagine being a wealthy Republican senator who gets a lot of money from the oil and gas industry. Now imagine the most unsettling nominee to lead the federal agency charged with overseeing the nation’s public lands and honoring the government’s commitments to tribes. What might this nominee look like?
A Native American congresswoman with a record of environmental stewardship is a great fit for that role. And that’s exactly why some GOP senators are scrambling to take down President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Interior Department, Deb Haaland.
Biden’s nomination of Haaland, a second-term Democratic House member from New Mexico, has generated tremendous excitement among tribes and members of Congress in both parties. Republican Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Don Young (Alaska) have praised her bipartisan approach to policymaking in her role as chairwoman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee that has oversight of the Interior Department. She is one of just three Native American women in Congress and if confirmed as interior secretary, she will be the country’s first-ever Indigenous Cabinet member in any post.
But a handful of Republican senators have begun criticizing Haaland, and there’s a theme to their attacks: She’s radical.
“I’m deeply concerned with the congresswoman’s support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America,” Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) said in a statement earlier this month.
Daines has vowed to try to block Haaland’s nomination before she’s even had her confirmation hearing, which is set for Feb. 23. He said he has problems with her opposition to oil and gas leasing on federal lands and her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. He also raised concerns with her support for the Green New Deal, a progressive set of guiding principles to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m not convinced the congresswoman can divorce her radical views and represent what’s best for Montana and all stakeholders in the West,” he said. “Unless my concerns are addressed, I will block her confirmation.”
Other GOP senators are starting to use the same language.
Haaland’s “radical views are squarely at odds with the responsible management of our nation’s energy resources,” Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the top Republican on the committee that will hold Haaland’s confirmation hearing, told E&E News last week.
“Representative Haaland must demonstrate that she will follow the law, protect the multiple uses of our public lands, and reject policies that will force energy workers into the unemployment line,” Barrasso said. “I won’t support her nomination otherwise.”
Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) have piled on. Cornyn criticized her opposition to fracking on public lands, Lummis called her ideas for addressing climate change “unrealistic.”
So what, exactly, is so radical about Haaland?
It’s not her policy views. If that were the case, then her boss would be “radical.” Biden and Haaland essentially share the same positions on the Keystone pipeline, federal oil and gas leasing, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s not her approach to policymaking, given the public advocacy for her nomination by GOP House colleagues because of her record of bipartisan work.
What is radical about Haaland to these senators is that she is prepared to challenge the pro-industry status quo over how public lands are managed, and for whom they are managed. The Republicans taking aim at Haaland get so much money from companies that want to keep drilling on public lands that if the Biden administration wants to rein in these practices, it’s not surprising these senators are suddenly sounding the alarms.
Daines has taken more than $1.2 million from the oil and gas industry since coming to Congress, first as a House member. Barrasso isn’t far behind, having taken $1.17 million since he became a senator in 2007. The industry has been a top-five contributor to both throughout their careers.
Cornyn, who has taken a whopping $4.5 million from the oil and gas industry since winning his Senate seat in 2002, on Monday tweeted out a Wall Street Journal article about Haaland being on on a “collision course with the oil industry.”
Lummis, who has gotten more than $616,000 from the oil and gas lobby since she initially won a House seat in 2008, tweeted Tuesday that Haaland’s policy ideas on climate change will “negatively impact working families.”
In reality, none of these Republican senators can block Haaland’s nomination, and they know that. They’re in the minority now and simply don’t have the votes. The most they can do is cause some delays.
HuffPost reached out to all four senators’ offices for comment on how much of their opposition to Haaland is tied to all the money they get from the oil and gas industry.
Daines’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Cornyn’s office.
Barrasso spokesman Mike Danylak said the senator is fighting for energy workers and that Haaland has supported “job busting policies” in the past.
“As Senator Barrasso said at the meeting to consider [Energy secretary nominee] Jennifer Granholm’s nomination: ‘I will not stand by as the Biden administration tries to crush Wyoming’s economy,’” Danylak said.
Lummis spokeswoman Abegail Cave said the senator has been “a proud champion” of the oil and gas sector for 30 years.
“Decimating it, as Rep. Haaland aims to do, would cripple Wyoming and energy-producing states across the country, something even New Mexico’s Democratic administration recognizes,” said Cave, referring to a February letter to the Interior Department from New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department asking for clarity on certain approvals associated with allowing existing oil and gas operations to move forward.
Haaland, whose political career has not been financed by the oil and gas industry, has talked passionately about the need to combat climate change and supported the idea of ending the extraction of coal, oil and natural gas from public lands as a way to reduce carbon pollution.
“I tell people I’m a 35th-generation New Mexican because I am. The Pueblo people migrated to the Rio Grande Valley in the late 1200s, 35 generations ago,” Haaland told HuffPost in November, before she was nominated to the Cabinet post. “I think it’s a time in our world ― not just in our country, but our entire world ― to listen to Indigenous people when it comes to climate change, when it comes to our environment.”
“Whoever becomes secretary has an opportunity to combat climate change, to take this 25% carbon that our public lands are emitting right now and eliminate that,” she added. “I think that what is required is somebody who cares about our public lands.”
The Interior Department referred HuffPost’s request for comment to Haaland’s congressional office, which declined to be quoted for this story.
Native voices are overdue on environmental policy
Daines and Barasso assert that they are the ones trying to protect America’s public lands from Haaland’s radical ways ― a claim so divorced from reality that you almost have to laugh, given all the money they’ve taken from a fossil fuel industry that’s carved up millions of acres of public lands and, on a deeper level, given the U.S. government’s violent history of forcibly removing Native Americans from their lands.
The Interior Department is central to the federal government’s responsibility to carry out treaty obligations to tribes, which it has failed to do again and again. That an Indigenous woman is even this close to leading the agency marks a seismic shift in American governance. If confirmed, Haaland will succeed David Bernhardt, a former oil and agricultural lobbyist who played a central role in the Trump administration’s dismantling of protections for federal lands and imperiled species.
Daines’ effort to derail Haaland’s nomination has infuriated some tribes and tribal groups in his home state.
“It just makes my blood boil,” said Floyd Azure, chairman of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana.
“Finally, the Native Americans could have a Native American in such a high place in our government, and this nomination is being opposed for basically political reasons,” Azure said. “These actions by our congressional representatives just go to show that Native Americans are just second-rate citizens here in this country, and that our needs and wants don’t need to be taken into consideration when making life-changing laws.”
“Deb is a great choice and is smart. I disagree and am disappointed about the (Daines) stance,” said Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe in Montana. “I would also like to see him stop calling all Dems ‘radical,’ the name-calling needs to stop on both sides.”
Andrew Werk, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Tribal Council in Montana, said he supports Haaland’s nomination “for all the reasons Daines opposes her.” He noted that Daines didn’t mention Montana tribes at all in his statement on Haaland, and said neither he nor his staff have heard from the senator.
“Representative Haaland is not a radical,” said Werk. “She’s definitely qualified for the job and has done a lot of good bipartisan work while in Congress. She’s from the West. Of course it’s historic having a Native American as a Cabinet member. Even more so the secretary of interior. But that’s not what this about. This is about who’s qualified for the job. And she definitely is.”
“It’s sad that a U.S. senator from Montana — a state with seven Indian reservations — threatens to block the nation’s first Native American secretary of Interior,” added Pat Smith, board chairman of Western Native Voice, a Montana-based nonprofit focused on inspiring Native leadership.
Trump’s “conservation and Indian policies were an unmitigated disaster, including the gutting of Bears Ears National Monument (in Utah), the nation’s first Native-led monument. The nation voted for change,” said Smith, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. “Western Native Voice welcomes this change and urges Senator Daines to represent all of his constituencies.”
A Daines spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment regarding these criticisms.
“It just makes my blood boil.”
The senator did, however, double down in his attacks on Haaland on Tuesday. In a pair of tweets, Daines falsely blamed wind turbines for this week’s severe power outages in Texas following a record cold snap, saying the storm is “exactly why” Haaland’s nomination is “extremely alarming.” In reality, frozen instruments at power plants are the main reason for the state’s power outages, not failed wind farms.
Lummis has been taking shots at Haaland all week on Twitter. On Tuesday, she tweeted out a link to a June 2020 press release from Haaland’s office that outlined the New Mexican’s policy ideas relating to climate change.
“What makes us think she won’t bring that wish list with her to the Dept. of Interior?” Lummis asks ominously.
A look at that press release reveals, finally, what Haaland’s radical policy plans are: creating good-paying jobs, promoting natural climate solutions and keeping families and the planet healthy.