Partway through the sometimes contentious confirmation hearing for Deb Haaland as US secretary of the interior last week came an acknowledgement of the two powerful forces, with very different attitudes to the climate crisis, that have squared off over the nomination.
“I almost feel like your nomination is a proxy fight over the future of fossil fuels,” Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, told Haaland during the Senate hearing.
Haaland, a strong advocate for climate action who is seeking to be the first Indigenous American confirmed as a cabinet secretary, was careful to not wade directly into this fray herself, assuring the senators that fossil fuels would be around for “years to come” and that she intended to be someone who will “serve all Americans, not just my one district in New Mexico”.
But the battle lines between the fossil fuel industry and the activists and environmentalists opposed to it have been starkly drawn in the fight for Haaland’s nomination.
John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who has received nearly $1.2m from oil and gas companies and their employees in his time in the Senate, said he was “troubled by many of [Haaland’s] radical views” and scolded her over a tweet in which she said Republicans didn’t believe in science. Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said he was “deeply concerned” over Haaland’s “radical” support for Joe Biden’s pausing of oil and gas drilling on public land, neglecting to mention his campaign had taken $288,500 from these industries in just the past five years.
Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who has over his Senate career accepted nearly $1.7m from oil and gas interests, pointedly asked Haaland: “Will your administration be guided by a prejudice against fossil fuel, or will it be guided by science?” while Utah’s Mike Lee, who blamed protections placed on Bears Ears, an area of the state important to Native Americans, for “impoverishing” locals, has taken in $366,000 from oil and gas during his Senate tenure.
This staunch opposition will probably not sink Haaland’s nomination given Republicans are the minority in the Senate and Joe Manchin, a conservative swing Democrat from the coal heartland of West Virginia, has said he will vote to confirm her after getting sufficient assurances that fossil fuels won’t be immediately jettisoned in order to tackle the unfolding climate crisis.
But the feud over Haaland’s nomination highlights the enormous political challenge of rapidly shifting the US away from oil, coal and gas towards cleaner forms of energy to avert ever more disastrous heatwaves, flooding, wildfires, societal unrest and other maladies. Republicans have signaled they will fiercely enforce a status quo whereby fossil fuel extraction across vast swaths of public land, including areas sacred to Native Americans, remains unhindered.
Opposing them is a broad coalition of environmental, youth and indigenous rights groups, along with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, who see Haaland’s historic ascent as a pivotal moment to confront longstanding environmental, economic, racial and social inequities.
“Grassroots advocacy and Native civic engagement and not campaign contributions from extractive industries should be the major factor in the direction of the Department of the Interior,” said Judith LeBlanc, executive director of Native Organizers Alliance, which as been part of an effort in which tens of thousands of letters have been sent by Indigenous Americans to senators calling for Haaland’s confirmation.
She added: “It goes without saying the importance of this moment to Indigenous peoples everywhere. For an Indigenous woman to step into this role means real change is in the making. It reflects a reckoning with the long history of systemic racism.”
A Laguna Pueblo member, Haaland has become a progressive champion through her advocacy for tribal communities as well as for the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to eliminate US greenhouse gas emissions – a quarter of which are currently generated on public lands.
“For us, her confirmation means progress towards environmental, racial and economic justice,” said Ellen Sciales, spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth justice organization.
But while Haaland may take part in protests such as the one over the Dakota Access pipeline that threatens the land and water of the Standing Rock tribe, her supporters point out she has enough bipartisan bona fides to lead a department with 70,000 members of staff that manages around a fifth of the American landmass.
“A unique thing about Deb is her track record during the partisan Trump era,” said Jade Begay, a member of the Tesuque Pueblo and Navajo Nation and the climate justice campaign director of the NDN Collective.
“She’s a skilled politician who knows how to work across party lines, and a lot of interior [department] policies are about relationships between communities who don’t see eye to eye, like the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. We need someone who is a skilled bridge maker and that’s who Deb Haaland is.”
Even Don Young, a Republican US representative known for his embrace of the fossil fuel industry who said at the hearing that “you have to be on pot” to think oil and gas are going to be phased out, said he backed Haaland’s nomination after working productively 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,” the Alaskan lawmaker said. “Respectfully, I want you to listen to her. Understand that there’s a broad picture.”
The struggle over Haaland’s nomination, and the obstacles she faces once confirmed, may well illustrate the overall climate challenge in miniature. Will the US pull off the trick of speedily switching to renewables while bringing along those workers who risk being left behind, or will it remain umbilically attached to extractive industries that blight the climate, water supplies and people’s health?
Climate activists hope Haaland will help deliver the former. “She understands the science behind climate change, and the urgent need to shift our priorities,” said Sharon Buccino, director of lands for the National Resource Defense Council. “Her opponents are stuck in the past – we need to look to energy sources other than oil and gas to deliver a secure and prosperous energy future.”