President Joe Biden’s nominee for Interior secretary, Deb Haaland, pledged Wednesday to visit Utah before making any recommendations on the fate of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, whose designations and subsequent reductions have been debated for a quarter century.
“I would never pass up an opportunity to go to Utah,” the Democratic New Mexico congresswoman told Utah Sen. Mike Lee during day two of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Among Haaland’s first orders of business as Interior secretary would be to review then-President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to slash those two monuments by 2 million acres. Most observers suspect Biden plans ultimately to restore the monuments’ lost territory.
During the hearing, Lee offered one of his familiar expositions on the pitfalls of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which has allowed presidents to designate national monuments, like the two in Utah.
“There’s a pattern of overaction by [Democratic] presidential administrations to declare new monuments in a manner contrary to the wishes of the host state,” he said. Congress exempted Alaska and Wyoming, he noted, from future national monument designations after presidents set aside large monuments within their borders. He suggested Utah deserves similar consideration, given that a large share of land protected under the Antiquities Act since 1996 is in the state.
“Could you understand why it would be difficult for us to negotiate without some kind of actual deal, some kind of protection and assurance that we won’t end up losing the whole negotiation anyway as long as the president may, through the stroke of the presidential pen, undo all of our negotiations?” the Utah Republican asked.
Haaland, who could become the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, said she remains sensitive to his concerns and those of monument opponents and will strive to listen to all sides.
“I understand and I respect your position,” Haaland told Lee. “I want you to know that if I am confirmed, I am ready to sit down and talk with you and the stakeholders in Utah. I know that tribal nations, it’s their ancestral homeland in some respects. I would be honored to get everyone together and talk about these issues.”
At the conclusion of the hearing Wednesday, it was unclear whether her promises were enough to win Lee’s support, but committee Chairman Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., signaled she would get his vote.
“While we do not agree on every issue, she reaffirmed her strong commitment to bipartisanship, addressing the diverse needs of our country and maintaining our nation’s energy independence,” Manchin, who represents a coal-producing state, said in a statement. “In addition, she reiterated the position of the Biden administration that our country will continue to use fossil fuels for years to come, even as we transition to a cleaner energy future, through innovation not elimination.”
Although the hearing is now concluded, Manchin, whose supportive vote is seen as key, will continue to accept written questions from the committee members.
Haaland faced tough verbal questioning from Republican senators weighing her historic nomination. She came under fire for her past opposition to fossil energy development, particularly her advocacy against new oil pipelines, fracking and oil and gas production from public lands. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana pronounced Haaland a “hard-line ideologue with radical views.”
Her confirmation is seen as “a proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels,” in the words of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that will likely come down to a close partisan vote in the Senate, whose membership is evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans.
Daines and John Barrasso of Wyoming made clear they would try to block Haaland from heading Interior, a department with 70,000 employees and a $21 billion budget that oversees some 500 million acres of federal lands.
These lands currently produce 12% of the nation’s natural gas, 24% of its oil, and 43% of its coal. Accordingly, this energy accounts for about a quarter of the nation’s climate-altering carbon emissions. .
A centerpiece of Biden’s climate agenda is lowering the nation’s dependence of fossil energy and achieving “net zero” emissions. His administration has already ordered a “pause” on any new oil and gas leasing on public lands pending a review of the leasing program. Haaland repeatedly stressed that this action does not affect the 23 million acres already under lease, much of which has yet to be drilled.
But Barrasso wasn’t buying it, pointing out how she ran for Congress in 2018 advocating an end to oil and gas production in New Mexico. He claimed that she argued the state could make up the lost revenue by legalizing marijuana.
“Is selling marijuana among what the Biden administration calls the ‘better choices’ that the Biden administration has promised to give displaced oil and gas workers?” the Wyoming senator said. ”Your preference is to turn to drugs — it’s what you’ve recommended to the voters — at a time when we know there is high unemployment and energy workers lose their jobs.”
If Haaland was put off by the attack, she didn’t show it.
“The point of that,” she said, “was to say that we should diversify our funding streams for education and not just rely on one.”