DEB HAALAND is both an unsurprising and groundbreaking choice to head the Department of the Interior (DoI). On one hand, her successful business career and progression through state-party posts in New Mexico resembles that of other House members, and like every other interior secretary since 1975, she hails from west of the Mississippi River. On the other, she would be the first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, heading a department that, as its own Bureau of Indian Affairs admits, played a critical role in a long federal campaign to “subjugate and assimilate American Indians”. But as her confirmation hearing on February 23rd may show, having impressive and familiar credentials does not make her an uncontroversial choice.
Interior has a lower profile than other departments, such as State or Treasury, but it has always been quietly powerful. The department oversees one-fifth of America’s lands and manages the country’s natural resources and its relations with Native American tribes. Donald Trump used the DoI to shrink national monuments, which are parcels of land protected from extractive activities in order to conserve sites of historic or scientific interest. He also opened up public lands for drilling, logging and mining, drawing the ire of environmental groups.
The department is not likely to recede into the shadows now that Mr Biden is in the Oval Office. Mr Trump’s DoI cosied up to extractive industries; Mr Biden’s is preparing for a fight against them. The new president has already signed executive orders placing the department at the centre of his administration’s bold climate and conservation agenda. Enter Ms Haaland.
Mr Biden’s cabinet is racially diverse, but most of his nominees hew to the political centre. Ms Haaland is an exception, with views closer to those of Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, a far-left congresswoman from New York, than her would-be boss. Her support for the Green New Deal and hostility to fracking raised eyebrows among Republicans. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which will hold Ms Haaland’s confirmation hearing, is filled with senators from western states that rely on the energy sector for jobs and revenue. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and the committee’s chairman, has not said how he will vote. Mr Manchin did say he tends to be “deferential” to presidents’ picks (though he opposes the confirmation of Neera Tanden, Mr Biden’s choice to run the Office of Management and Budget). Many of his Republican colleagues—including John Barrasso, a senator from Wyoming and the committee’s top Republican—are against Ms Haaland’s nomination. Their opposition can be best explained by examining two related policies Ms Haaland will probably pursue if confirmed.
First is Mr Biden’s decision to halt new oil and gas leases on public lands. The initial 60-day moratorium signed by the DoI’s acting secretary prompted complaints from lawmakers around the west. They fear Ms Haaland will deliver on Mr Biden’s campaign promise to make the ban permanent. Steve Daines, a Republican senator for Montana who sits on the energy committee, said her support for “radical” ideas—such as the ban, the Green New Deal and Mr Biden’s decision to revoke the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline—would “hurt Montana” and “our way of life”. He has pledged to try to block Ms Haaland’s confirmation.
The congresswoman’s home state of New Mexico could be hit hardest if the ban does become permanent. The Land of Enchantment, as it is affectionately known, is the third-biggest oil-producing state in America. Much of its drilling takes place on federal lands in the Permian Basin. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, a trade outfit, says a ban could cost the state 62,000 jobs and $1.5bn in annual state revenue. Yet an analysis from Rocky Mountain Wild, a conservation group, suggests that demand for new leases in six western states has declined overall since 2019. The report also notes that more than half of the 20m acres of federal land already leased in those states remains undeveloped.
The second thing Republicans are fretting about is the prospect of Mr Biden declaring or enlarging national monuments. Conservative state and local governments have long viewed the practice as an unceremonious land grab by the feds. Creating new national monuments or enlarging existing ones is almost certainly on the cards. Doing so would help Mr Biden reach his goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. As of 2018 only 12% of the country’s lands and 26% of its waters were protected, according to the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank. Ms Haaland was an early supporter of the so-called “30x30 plan”, and she may make it a priority during her tenure if confirmed. Interior is already studying whether to restore two monuments in southern Utah—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante—that Mr Trump shrunk in 2017.
Other thorny problems await Ms Haaland if she is confirmed. There is sure to be more resistance against nixing Keystone XL. A kerfuffle is also brewing over whether the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the DoI, should stay in Colorado (where Mr Trump moved it last year) or return to Washington. But zoom out a bit and all of these issues boil down to two fundamental questions that Americans have been fighting over for centuries: who does federal land really belong to, and what should it be used for? Ranchers, tribes, conservationists, oilmen, local officials and Ms Haaland’s Interior Department may all have a different answer. The debate is far from over.