Interior nominee Rep. Deb Haaland’s past came back to haunt her Tuesday as Senate Republicans grilled the New Mexico Democrat over her well-documented hostility to fracking, pipelines and oil-and-gas production on federal lands.
The New Mexico Democrat, a supporter of the Green New Deal, would make history if confirmed as the first American Indian Cabinet secretary, but she would also become the first anti-pipeline activist to lead the Interior Department based on her participation in the 2016 Dakota Access protest.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, warned that he would oppose her nomination if she “intends to use the Department of Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other western states.”
“Rep. Haaland’s positions are squarely at odds with the mission of the Department of the Interior,” said Mr. Barrasso, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “That mission includes managing our nation’s oil, gas and coal resources in a responsible manner — not eliminating access to them.”
She has previously said that she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands” and that “we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” declaring at the 2018 Netroots Nation that “it’s time that we stopped all new fossil-fuel infrastructure in America. No more pipelines!”
At Tuesday’s hearing, however, Ms. Haaland adopted a more moderate tone, saying she would seek to “strike the right balance” on protecting federal lands, advancing renewable energy and supporting fossil fuels while promising to work with lawmakers and uphold President Biden’s priorities.
“I want to first assure you that if I’m confirmed as secretary, that is a far different role than a congresswoman representing one small district in my state,” said Ms. Haaland. “I understand that role. It’s to serve all Americans, not just my one district.”
Sen. Steve Daines, Montana Republican, asked what she would say to the 60 workers in Fallon County who lost their jobs as a result of Mr. Biden’s early rash of executive orders, which included a cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit.
“I want you to know that I understand what that’s like. I have struggled myself as well and been without a job at various times at my life,” said Ms. Haaland. “I will do everything I can as I said, I mean it, I will work my heart out for every American.”
Mr. Biden has come under fire for failing to deliver on his pledge to create “millions of green energy jobs” before axing the Keystone project and suspending new leasing on federal lands, but Ms. Haaland insisted that “if we can move President Biden’s agenda forward together, we can create those millions of jobs.”
Mr. Daines was unconvinced. “I’m just concerned about receiving this nomination,” he said. “The track record and the ideology in the past would perpetuate more divisiveness and would certainly harm Montana’s economy.”
The department Ms. Haaland has been picked to run manages 480 million surface acres, nearly 20% of the U.S. land area, and 700 million subsurface minerals, holdings that generate $12 billion annually for the federal treasury and support 1.8 million jobs.
The 60-year-old Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was elected in November to her second term in Congress after serving previously as a small-business owner and head of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
In September 2016, she spent four days in the protest camps seeking to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, located a half-mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The pipeline has been running oil since 2017 amid an ongoing legal challenge from the tribe.
Under questioning from Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, she refused to commit to recusing herself from decisions on the Dakota Access, saying she would consult with Interior attorneys and ethics officials.
Ms. Haaland said she participated in the protest “because I agreed with the tribe that they felt they weren’t consulted in the best way,” but fudged on whether she still opposed the pipeline, which carries crude from the Bakken formation to refineries in Patoka, Illinois.
“Well, senator, I know that it’s an important position for you, and I understand that,” she said. “I also agree that whenever these projects come up that we absolutely should make sure we are consulting with tribes if in fact these projects affect their lands, their sacred sites.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has argued that it consulted more than 250 times with tribal and historic preservation authorities. The corps wound up removing more than 24,000 tons of waste, debris and trash from the protest site on federal lands in March 2017.
Mr. Hoeven said that the Dakota Access has operated safely for more than three years, and that without it, states that depend on the oil “would otherwise have to get their oil from OPEC, Saudi Arabia. Instead, we produce it here with good job creation.”
The nomination has turned up the political heat on Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, who chairs the committee. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, blasted him in a Monday tweet over an NBC report saying that he has “remaining questions.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, pressed the nominee on whether she would be guided by “science or something other than science,” saying that “clearly the Biden administration is not guided by science, and Republicans are guided by science.”
“The Interior Department’s decisions will be guided by science,” she said.
Mr. Barrasso brought up an Oct. 7 tweet by the nominee in which she declared that “Republicans don’t believe in science.”
Mr. Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon, pointed out that he and two other of the GOP committee members are medical doctors and asked Ms. Haaland: “Do you think that as medical doctors we don’t believe in science? How do you stand by this statement?”
Ms. Haaland appeared to be caught off guard, replying, “Senator, I, I, yes, if you’re a doctor, I would assume that you believe in science.”
She received the backing of at least one Republican: Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who introduced her, saying that having an American Indian Interior secretary was “a long time overdue.”
“You’ll find out that she will listen to you. She may not change. She and I do not agree on carbon fuels,” Mr. Young said, adding, “But it’s my job to try to convince her that she’s not all right, and her job to convince me I’m not all right.”
A second committee hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.