US President Joe Biden faces stiff resistance in the US Senate to his appointments to several cabinet and agency positions – including Neera Tanden, who was removed from the process on Tuesday to become White House budget director.
The political agenda for the first 100 days of his administration has been bogged down by the slowness of congressional confirmation of Biden’s top picks.
But one of the most controversial approval processes to date involves Representative Deb Haaland, the Democrat from New Mexico asked to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI).
On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-9 to advance Haaland’s nomination. A vote by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who broke ranks with fellow GOP committee members, put him above.
Haaland’s nomination now goes to the Senate for a vote. She is expected to be widely confirmed, but hearings surrounding her appointment could signal a difficult legislative road for Biden’s climate agenda.
The DOI is one of four government agencies that administer some 640 million acres (260 million hectares) of federally owned land. These properties include parcels that the US oil and gas industry and mining companies would like to develop for drilling, extraction and pipelines.
During Haaland’s confirmation hearings, supporters of the U.S. fossil fuel industry expressed strong opposition to the progressive candidate’s stance on climate change.
She has been an open opponent of hydraulic fracturing – which has propelled American energy production to new heights. Haaland was also a co-sponsor of the original Green New Deal resolution.
“If she is allowed to continue her Green New Deal-inspired policies at the Home Office, she will throw the economies of Wyoming and other states into the ditch,” Sen. John Barrasso, the top member of the government, said Thursday. republican committee. “Representative Haaland’s extreme political views and the lack of substantive responses during the hearing, to me, disqualify her.”
Last week, in response to a grilling from several Republican senators who received significant campaign funds from oil, gas and coal companies, Washington state Democrat Senator Maria Cantwell told Haaland that his appointment “is a proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels.”
Cantwell went on to say that the debate over pipelines and drilling rights highlighted a dramatic divide between Republican and Democratic members of the committee, and different visions for the DOI’s mandate in the management of federal lands and public resources.
Haaland, who has been a strong advocate for climate action, told senators at the hearing that fossil fuels will remain in the US economy for “years to come.”
Those assurances have failed to appease Republican senators such as Barrasso – as well as Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Steve Daines of Montana – who have established clear defensive lines in their struggle to expand the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.
“ Disparate impact ”
Tara Houska, a lawyer and native rights activist based in Minnesota, was recently arrested along with more than 100 other conservationists for protesting against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline that runs through her state’s north.
This $ 2.6 billion fossil fuel infrastructure project is the type of development that could be put at risk under Biden’s new DOI secretary.
“We are talking about the control of the fossil fuel industry and the disparate impact it has had on the Indian country,” Houska told Al Jazeera.
For many vulnerable Native American groups like the Anishinaabe in the rural Midwest, security concerns about pipelines and political issues over land sovereignty overlap with climate activists’ argument that the expansion of the fossil fuel industry exacerbates global warming and constitutes an economic impasse.
“Oil companies and the mining industry are used to running around us everywhere,” Houska said. “And to see this Native with a huge [potential] the influence on the outcome of extractive projects is probably quite frightening for them.
Houska, who served as a Native American policy advisor to Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, added that Haaland is likely to “take a position of great authority in the U.S. government.”
While Biden has already put the kibosh on the Keystone XL pipeline and faces increasing pressure to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline, Haaland’s own record as vice chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources is passed under the microscope.
“While we have expressed concerns about many of the political positions she has supported in the United States House, we appreciate her recognition that running a department comes with a role and a different set of responsibilities, ”Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of economic and regulatory affairs at the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
“Secretary-designate Haaland is appointed to lead the Home Office at a time when the United States leads the world in energy production and emissions reduction, and we look forward to helping developing policies that build on this progress, ”the statement continued. referring to the key role API – the leading oil and gas lobby group in the United States – has played in tackling the hydraulic fracturing boom of the past decade.
An opportunity to focus on jobs
Biden’s moratorium on new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands does not apply to tribal areas. But activists like Houska see an opportunity for the Biden administration to focus on environmental conservation, climate justice and, most importantly, job creation.
The infrastructure bill that the White House is expected to release this spring could highlight the construction of renewable energy facilities, as well as the rehabilitation of aging fossil fuel infrastructure – which includes sealing old wells gasoline, repairing pipelines and stopping methane leaks.
Megan Milliken Biven is the founder of True Transition, an organization dedicated to the problem of abandoned wells and finding jobs for everyone from former rig managers and drillers to lunatics and debauchery.
She told Al Jazeera that tens of thousands of oil and gas workers could immediately begin “identifying, tagging, hooking up and plugging and monitoring the millions of oil and gas wells that terrorize American coastal communities.”
Biven believes the DOI has a greater obligation to fossil fuel workers and fossil fuel dependent communities than to the fossil fuel companies themselves. A former DOI employee, she argues the federal government should reverse the energy policy of the 1970s, forcing regular auctions of offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as in New Mexico and many other states.
She also suggested that many DOI staff feel “legally obligated” to boost oil and gas production, although Biven says the ministry should instead focus on the “orderly and managed decline” of the oil and gas industry. fossil fuels.
“ Patina of toxic sexism and racism ”
Some activists believe that opposition to Haaland’s appointment is not just about the future of the mining and fossil fuel industries in the United States.
“If we had an identical candidate who was a white man, he wouldn’t be treated that way,” Collin Rees, a senior activist at Oil Change International, told Al Jazeera, noting what he described as ” patina of their toxic sexism and exposed racism ”.
Haaland, who just served two years in the House after being inaugurated in 2019, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe based near the city of Albuquerque. And it is widely supported by environmentalists, tribal leaders and civil rights groups.
“I absolutely think [Republicans] have chosen what they perceive to be a weak link and hammer away at it, ”Rees said, adding that“ fossil fuel allies are afraid of how quickly the debate has shifted over to them in recent years. “.
Campaigners are under no illusions that Haaland will be able to shut down every planned pipeline, although the fossil fuel industry is unlikely to be such an important part of the country’s climate policy making – after decades of opposing deep emissions cuts to ward off the climate. emergency.
Almost a quarter of America’s carbon emissions are produced on public lands.
Rees said Haaland could “change the math for who DOI works for,” but recognizes the immense challenges ahead – and the patience required – in transitioning to low-carbon energy sources.
“Nobody asks for these [oil] the taps must be turned off tomorrow, ”he said.