When Deb Haaland was confirmed as 54th Secretary of the Interior in March, it was both a historic and hopeful moment in American politics. Speaking at her confirmation hearing, Haaland said: “If an Indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, our country holds promise for everyone.” She has campaigned to secure the ‘American Dream’ for disadvantaged communities, but you could say her story is an example of the ethos in action (although she’s still paying off student loans). In her early days of single motherhood she lived paycheck to paycheck, volunteering at her child’s preschool to afford early childhood education, running a small business selling homemade salsa and occasionally relying on food stamps. She put herself through college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in English and later her Juris Doctor. Haaland went on to carve out a successful career in public service, breaking many barriers along the way.
But Haaland’s appointment to Joe Biden’s cabinet is more than a tale about overcoming adversity, and it should not be viewed as diversity for diversity’s sake. For one, despite the Department of the Interior (DOI) managing the relationship between the federal government and the 574 sovereign tribal nations in the US, Haaland is the first Native American to lead it. A significant amount of her time as Interior Secretary will be devoted to addressing long-standing disputes with both the federal government and between different tribes.
Additionally, the DOI is responsible for some 500 million acres of public land, meaning there is potential for consequential climate action. Jim Orchard, an energy analyst who has spent more than 30 years working in the resource and energy industry (including 12 years in the US coal industry), explains that there will be high expectations regarding how this land is managed. “Environmental and climate activists are acutely aware that the DOI controls around 20 per cent of total US land and that this includes both hundreds of national parks and wildlife refuges as well as coal mines, conventional oil and gas wells and fracking operations leased to private and publicly listed entities,” he says. “DOI estimates suggest that emissions from fossil fuels produced on federal lands represent, on average, 23.7 per cent of national CO2 emissions.”
Haaland has a history of fighting against oil and gas exploration, and one of Joe Biden’s campaign promises was to ban new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters. Since then he has signed an executive order directing the Interior Department to “pause” new leases pending a review into the federal oil and gas programme. “Federal land, predominantly in western states like Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming, is responsible for about 26 per cent of the nation’s oil production and 13 per cent of its gas output,” Orchard says. “So while DOI action to ban new leases will not stop domestic oil and gas extraction it will have a meaningful impact.”
A Haaland-led DOI is also expected to promote a rapid expansion in renewable energy production. The $900 billion COVID-relief bill passed in December set the DOI a target of increasing renewable generation on public lands from 8 GW to 25 GW by 2025, and included measures to streamline permitting processes and to reduce lease rates on solar and wind projects.
Orchard says that if Haaland can take meaningful steps toward eliminating fossil fuel extraction on public lands while encouraging an increase in the rate at which renewables are built, “she will have made a significant contribution in the work required to decarbonise the nation”. But of course, given Haaland is helping to enact some of Biden’s most politically contentious climate change policies, it’s not going to be smooth sailing. Regarding moves to ban new fossil fuel leases, Orchard explains that if Republicans regain control of either the House or the Senate there will be efforts to slow down her work, and numerous lawsuits from the fossil fuel industry and allied groups can be expected. Complicating matters further is the fact that tribes such as the Navajo and the Crow hold federally controlled fossil fuel assets which would lose their value under a ban on extraction on federal lands. “In short, banning new fossil fuel extraction from federal lands is an easy campaign promise to make but rather harder to fully execute,” Orchard says. As for stepping up renewable energy production in federal land, Orchard notes there is often local opposition to either new generation facilities themselves or the distribution network needed to connect new generation to the national grid.
Haaland has a track record for working across partisan lines and has said she will “continue to reach across the aisle, to protect our environment and make sure that vulnerable communities have a say in what our country is doing moving forward”. Orchard points out that while Haaland has said she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands”, she also stated during her nomination hearing that “there’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come”. “Taken together this suggests Haaland can be both pragmatic as well as progressive,” says Orchard.