Indian Country Today and Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's nominee to head the Interior Department faced sharp questions from Republicans Tuesday over what several called her "radical" ideas that include opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Deb Haaland, a New Mexico representative named to lead the Interior Department, tried to reassure GOP lawmakers, saying she is committed to "strike the right balance" as Interior manages oil drilling and other energy development while seeking to conserve public lands and address climate change.

If confirmed, Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. She is a citizen of Laguna Pueblo. 

Native people see her nomination as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements. The Interior Department has broad oversight over nearly 600 federally recognized tribes as well as energy development and other uses for the nation's sprawling federal lands.

"The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me," Haaland testified. "Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us."

Haaland's hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was adjourned after nearly 2 1/2 hours and will resume Wednesday.

(Related: A historic run, support for ‘Auntie Deb’)

Under questioning from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, the panel's chairman, Haaland said the U.S. will continue to rely on fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas even as it moves toward Biden's goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. The transition to clean energy "is not going to happen overnight," she said.

Manchin, who is publicly undecided on Haaland's nomination, appeared relieved, saying he supports "innovation, not elimination" of fossil fuels.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, was less impressed. He displayed a large chart featuring a quote from last November, before Haaland was selected to lead Interior, in which she said: "If I had my way, it'd be great to stop all gas and oil leasing on federal and public lands."

If confirmed as Interior secretary, "you will get to have it your way,'' Daines told Haaland.

She replied that Biden's vision — not hers — will set the course for Interior. "It is President Biden's agenda, not my own agenda, that I will be moving forward,'' Haaland said, an answer she repeated several times.

While Biden imposed a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands — which doesn't apply to tribal lands — he has repeatedly said he does not oppose fracking. Biden rejected the long-pIanned Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office.

Haaland also faced questions over her appearance at protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota before she was elected to Congress in 2018.

Haaland said she went there in solidarity with Native American tribes and other "water protectors" who "felt they were not consulted in the best way'' before the multi-state oil pipeline was approved.

Asked by Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, if she would oppose a renewal of the pipeline permit, Haaland said she would first ensure that tribes are properly consulted. She told Hoeven she also would "listen to you and consult with you.''

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said the GOP questions over oil drilling and pipelines revealed a partisan divide in the committee. 

"I almost feel like your nomination is this proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels," Cantwell said, adding that Haaland had made clear her intention to carry out Biden's clean-energy agenda. She and other Democrats "very much appreciate the fact that you're doing that, and that's what I think a president deserves with his nominee,'' Cantwell said.

In her opening statement, Haaland told lawmakers that as the daughter of a Pueblo woman, she learned early to value hard work. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for a quarter-century at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"As a military family, we moved every few years ... but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,'' Haaland said. 

She spent summers with her grandparents in a Laguna Pueblo village. "It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth,'' she said.

Haaland pledged to lead the Interior Department with honor and integrity and said she will be "a fierce advocate for our public lands."

She promised to listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and ensure that decisions are based on science. She also vowed to "honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America's story.''

Related:
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#DebForInterior: 'We are ready to make history'
Deb Haaland's hearing is Indian Country's Obama moment

Some Democrats and Native advocates called the frequent description of Haaland as "radical" a loaded reference to her tribal status.

"That kind of language is sort of a dog whistle for certain folks that see somebody who is an Indigenous woman potentially being in a position of power," said Ta'jin Perez with the group Western Native Voice. 

In an op-ed in USA Today, former Sens. Mark and Tom Udall said Haaland's record "is in line with mainstream conservation priorities. Thus, the exceptional criticism of Rep. Haaland and the threatened holds on her nomination must be motivated by something other than her record.''

Mark Udall is an ex-Colorado senator, while cousin Tom Udall just retired as a New Mexico senator. Tom Udall's father, Stewart, was Interior secretary in the 1960s.

Daines called the notion of racial overtones in his remarks outrageous.

"I would love to see a Native American serve in the Cabinet. That would be a proud moment for all of us in this country. But this is about her record and her views," he said in an interview.

National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting Haaland. A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organizations calls her "a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time,'' including climate change and racial justice issues on federal lands.

— — —

Day One live coverage: Deb Haaland's confirmation hearing

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland took a giant step Tuesday to becoming the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, answered a series of questions for 2 1/2 hours from a bipartisan group of 20 senators on the Senate Committee of Energy and Natural Resources.

Senators will start the second round of questions on Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. EST.

Here are updates from Tuesday's hearing:

11:50 a.m.

Sen. Hickenlooper asked his questions.

That concludes the first round of questioning for day one of Haaland’s confirmation hearing. The second round of questioning will be Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. EST.

11:43 a.m.

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada asks Haaland for various commitments to the state of Nevada regarding efficient land management and collaboration. Haaland commits to all of Cortez Masto's requests.

Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas asks Haaland about her plans to manage invasive species.

Haaland: "I look forward to working with you to find ways to remedy those situations."

11:41 a.m.

Two more senators to ask questions and the committee will adjourn for Tuesday.

11:35 a.m.

Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi asks Haaland about how the livelihoods of people in Mississippi will be secure under Haaland's leadership. Haaland reiterates a commitment to working with Hyde-Smith in the future.

11:30 a.m.

A few more senators will ask their questions of this first round of questioning. There will be a second round of questions Wednesday starting at 10:00 a.m. EST.

11:25 a.m.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota asks Haaland about her opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Haaland: "Yes I did go to stand with the water protectors ... I know that tribal consultation is important, and that was the reason that I was there."

Hoeven asks Haaland if she would recuse herself from matters related to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the future. Haaland says she will heed advice from Interior attorneys and ethics team members about how to proceed.

11:20 a.m.

Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine asks Haaland if she will review regulations regarding methane being released into the atmosphere. Haaland says yes, "We should be breathing clean air."

11:15 a.m.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, asks Haaland if she will be guided by science or be "prejudice against fossil fuels."

Haaland: "I have stated many times that if I am confirmed to the Interior Department, decisions will be guided by science."

11:00 a.m.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, asks Haaland if she will aid in repatriating sacred objects. Haaland responds, "It's heartbreaking. I've seen some of those pictures on the internet ... So absolutely that would be very important issue and I believe tribes would be grateful."

10:50 a.m.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, asks Haaland about collaboration and working together. Haaland says, "I guess I couldn't agree with you more that collaboration is absolutely important, and I was the highest rated freshmen for bipartisanship in 116th Congress."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska: "It is indeed very significant your nomination to this position as the first Native American woman. We respect that."

Murkowski asks Haaland about her approach to oil, gas and mineral resource development in Alaska. Haaland says she will follow the law, make the best decisions for Alaskans and will work with Murkowski in the future.

10:45 a.m.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, questions Haaland on endangered species, specifically about grizzly bears. He also asks about leasing moratoriums and Haaland's previous statements opposing new pipelines and fracking. He ends saying that he is concerned about Haaland's nomination.

10:40 a.m.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asks Haaland questions about public land designations and adds that Utah's stakeholders deserve a say in the designation process.

10:35 a.m.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, asked Haaland about preventing Oak Flat from "being sacrificed." Apaches call the sacred Oak Flat, Chi’chil Bildagoteel

Haaland said Oak Flat is a U.S. Forest Service purview, "however, if I had the opportunity, I look forward to being briefed on it.” She said tribal nations must be heard.

The Forest Service is turning over Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP.

Sanders also asks Haaland how she will combat the climate crisis. Haaland says she will create millions of clean energy jobs and inspire young people to find careers in those areas.

10:15 a.m.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said she recognizes Haaland’s confirmation as this “proxy fight for future fossil fuels” but she is simply carrying out Biden’s agenda.

Rep. Deb Haaland begins her opening statement with a land acknowledgement paying respect to "the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan, and Piscataway people,” as well as those loved ones who got her to where she is.

I spent summers in Mesita, our small village on Laguna Pueblo, the location of my grandparents’ traditional home. It was there that I learned about our culture from my grandmother by watching her cook and by participating in traditional feast days and ceremonies,” she said in her statement.

“It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth.”

9:35 a.m.

The hearing has officially started. Senate Energy Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Manchin and ranking member Sen. John Barrasso give opening statements outlining the job responsibilities of the Interior secretary.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report.

Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.