On Tuesday, Rep. Deb Haaland made history. She stood before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to make her case for secretary of the Interior. Despite meeting some Senate Republicans determined to vilify her support for climate action and clean energy, Haaland carried herself with grace, poise, and dignity. The nominee was clear that she was ready to work across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions to U.S. energy needs.
The GOP has long been uninterested in bipartisan solutions to the climate crisis. In fact, the Republican Party is largely in disagreement that the crisis even exists. And with the oil and gas industry in the pockets of so many legislative leaders—Democrats and Republicans alike—a transition off fossil fuels has felt impossible for so long. The first place we should start is on our public lands and waters, and a new Interior secretary could make that happen. Senators will likely seek more clarity on Haaland’s position on this during the second round of hearings happening today. (You can watch here.)
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re biting our nails until the confirmation vote next week. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I’m giving y’all some key takeaways from the hearing Tuesday. As per usual, I’m focusing on issues of environmental and climate justice that were brought up. The top takeaway? Republicans are terrified of what a Sec. Haaland would mean for oil, gas, and coal on federal lands. I’m terrified, however, that Haaland will live up to her words in the hearing and continue building out extractive infrastructure on our national parks and monuments.
On Job Loss & Creation
One of the first concerns to come up during the hearing was the potential for job loss should the Department of Interior follow President Joe Biden’s agenda of transitioning off of oil and gas. Senators Joe Manchin and John Barrasso, the committee’s leaders, were quick to voice that their constituents depend on extractive industries for good-paying jobs.
This was a theme that thumped throughout the entire hearing. However, it’s worth noting that the industry is doing a great job of killing jobs and abandoning workers all on its own. Last year, 118,000 fossil fuel jobs were lost. Biden and his nominee Haaland had nothing to do with that. These workers are already suffering under an industry facing pressure from consumers, the economy, and the planet. What politicians like Haaland offer is a managed transition that bakes in protections for them in difficult years the industry will face ahead.
“There is no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come,” Haaland said during the hearing. “But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating and our climate challenge must be addressed.”
And guess what? All this innovation can lead to more jobs. Haaland was sure to mention that. The Biden administration has promised to create 10 million new jobs in the clean energy sector. Researchers have examined this question, too: Investing in a global “green economy” could create some 24 million jobs worldwide. And as Haaland said during the hearing, once the U.S. kicks off this critical work, the hope is that the rest of the world follows suit. Megan Milliken Biven, the founder of True Transition and who used to work for the Interior Department, agrees in the potential for job creation in this sector—especially if the Biden administration dares to dream.
“President Joe Biden could issue an executive order tomorrow creating a new [Interior] agency, the Abandoned Well Administration, to directly employ oil and gas workers as full federal employees to do that work,” she says. “If we confront the oil and natural gas well menace as it requires, then we will create real jobs that will provide real benefits for years to come. Those paychecks will pay the bills, support local businesses, fund schools, and support real families.”
The Civilian Climate Corps would be another source of job opportunities. It’s a proposal already underway through an executive order President Biden put forth in January. This Corps is meant to train young people across the U.S. on conservation to help repair and transform our national parks and green spaces. It could serve a vital function as we revitalize our natural areas to meet the grand task of addressing climate change.
“President Biden also knows that restoring and conserving our lands through a Civilian Climate Corps has the potential to spur job creation,” she said during the hearing. “If confirmed, I will work my heart out for everyone: the families of fossil fuel workers who helped build our country, ranchers and farmers who care deeply for their lands, communities with legacies of toxic pollution, people of color whose stories deserve to be heard, and those who want jobs of the future.”
On DAPL and KXL
Haaland refused to reject oil, gas, and coal infrastructure in a series of direct questions from Barrasso. When asked if she would continue permitting oil, gas, and coal leases on federal lands, she said Yes. On oil pipelines? Her answer was Of course. It was a difficult moment to watch as someone who’s covered Haaland’s ascension to Congress because Haaland has been a fierce advocate of leaving all fossil fuels in the ground. However, she was clear during the hearing that she’s not seeking the position of Interior secretary to further her own agenda. No, she’s there to push forth the president’s agenda—and he’s less inclined to leave all fossil fuels in the ground.
Still, it was perhaps even more difficult to watch Sen. Bill Cassidy and John Hoeven ask Haaland for her stance on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. These are two projects that have faced severe opposition from tribal leaders and members for years. The questions felt like an attempt to pit Indigenous peoples against each other. While Cassidy was concerned about the job loss from Biden’s decision to kill Keystone XL (which isn’t as clear cut as Republicans would have you think), Hoeven was concerned that Haaland had joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the 2016 protests.
“Yes, I did go stand with the water protectors,” she said. “The reason I did that is because I agreed with the tribe that they felt they weren’t consulted in the best way. I know tribal consultation is important, and that was the reason I was there.”
When pushed on her current stance on the pipeline, which opponents are still trying to shut down, she reiterated the importance of consulting tribes. This felt like a missed opportunity for underlining the importance and value of tribal sovereignty, but Haaland may have been strategic in avoiding language that committee members may not fully understand. After all, tribal sovereignty is still a poorly understood right.
Hoeven eventually asked Haaland if she’d recuse herself from any Dakota Access situations, and she said she’d leave that decision to Interior Department attorneys and ethics officials should she be confirmed. Haaland didn’t explicitly voice any support for Indigenous opponents of these oil pipelines during the hearing, but doing so certainly won’t help convince Republican Senators to vote for her confirmation.
However, she did make clear that the missing and murdered Indigenous crisis will be a priority for her as secretary. Oil pipelines such as these contribute to the crisis by bringing camps of men into these vulnerable Indigenous communities. It’s an issue that Haaland has championed during her time in Congress. She even managed to pass a bipartisan bill on the issue during her short stint in Congress.