Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo member and President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Interior Department, is seeking to make history.

If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland will become the first Native American cabinet secretary in the United States.

Withstanding a hostile run of questions from Republicans during her confirmation hearing as a secretary of the Interior, Haaland said “our climate challenge must be addressed” but conceded that fossil fuels would play a role in the US for “years to come”.  

If confirmed as Interior secretary, Haaland would be at the helm of the management of lands that make up nearly a third of America’s landmass, including tribal lands.   

She would oversee the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all with critical responsibilities.

In an opening statement of her confirmation hearing, Haaland said “the historic nature” of her confirmation was not lost on her, adding that she hoped her confirmation would “be an inspiration for Americans, moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us”.

As a Democratic House lawmaker from New Mexico, Haaland has supported halting oil and gas development to slow climate change. She has also been outspoken about the impact of fossil fuel development upon the environment and Native American tribes. 

Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy, who has accepted almost USD$1.7 million from oil and gas interests over his Senate career, asked Haaland: “Will your administration be guided by a prejudice against fossil fuel, or will it be guided by science?”   

“We want to move forward with clean energy, we want to get to net-zero carbon,” Haaland said.

She added that the changes to energy use “are not going to happen overnight” and that she looked forward to working with the Senators on the matter.   

Haaland also repeatedly corrected Republicans who accused Biden of scrapping, rather than halting, oil and gas leases and acknowledged her role as a progressive would have to change if she were confirmed.  

“If I’m confirmed as secretary, that is a far different role than a Congresswoman representing one small district in my state.”

“So, I understand that role, it’s to serve all Americans, not just my one district in New Mexico. I realise Cabinet is very different; I recognise there is a difference in those two roles,” she said.

The pointed questions may not diminish Haaland’s nomination as Republicans are the minority in the Senate.

Joe Manchin, a conservative swing Democrat from the coal heartland of West Virginia, has also said he will vote to confirm her after receiving sufficient assurance that fossil fuels won’t be immediately dumped to tackle the unfolding climate crisis.  

Republican US representative Don Young, known for his support of the fossil fuel industry, said he also backed Haaland’s nomination after working with her.

“She has worked with me. She has crossed the aisle, and as a member of this administration, I know she will do a good job,” Young said.   

“Respectfully, I want you to listen to her. Understand there’s a broad picture.” 

By Darby Ingram