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Republicans Push Back On Historic Nomination Of Deb Haaland For Interior Secretary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The historic nomination of Congresswoman Deb Haaland for secretary of the Interior faced a test on Capitol Hill today. Haaland is a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet. She would also play a key role in President Biden's ambitious and controversial climate agenda. So Nathan Rott of NPR's climate team was following along for today's hearing.

Hey there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

KELLY: Hey. So what was Haaland's reception on Capitol Hill today?

ROTT: So I think Washington Senator Maria Cantwell put it best when she said that Haaland's nomination is actually kind of a proxy fight for the future of fossil fuels. That was definitely the tenor of today's hearings. One Republican characterized Haaland's environmental views as radical. Pretty much all questioned her about actions the Biden administration has taken to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Haaland made pretty clear in her opening statement that the administration is going to try to strike a balance between oil and gas and renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

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DEB HAALAND: There's no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come.

ROTT: But she also said we need to find more sustainable ways to power the country going forward.

KELLY: Now lay out for us what Republicans are concerned about. What are they hearing in those remarks that gives them pause?

ROTT: So basically, the concern is that oil and gas development is going to be sidelined under the Biden administration, which would hurt jobs and state economies. You know - and look. Haaland is pretty progressive on energy and climate issues. As a congresswoman, she spoke out against oil and gas drilling on public lands. She spoke out against fracking. She even joined protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. She was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, which has become a bit of a boogeyman for Republican lawmakers, even though President Biden has said repeatedly that he does not support the idea. But lawmakers really focused on those earlier comments that Haaland made. Here is a back-and-forth she had with Republican Senator Steve Daines from Montana.

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STEVE DAINES: Do you support a ban on fracking and no new pipelines?

HAALAND: Senator, President Biden does not support a ban on fracking - is my understanding. And it would be his agenda that we would...

DAINES: Yeah, but do you personally support a ban on fracking and no new pipelines?

HAALAND: Senator, if I am confirmed as secretary, I would be serving at the pleasure of the president, and it would be his agenda that I would move forward.

ROTT: And so that was about as testy as it got on Day 1. There's another hearing again tomorrow, but some Republicans have even supported her nomination.

KELLY: Although a good reminder there that President Biden does not go as far as Haaland on some of these issues. Just remind us what his larger goal is here.

ROTT: Right. So Biden is promising to conserve more parts of the country for wildlife and, you know, the ecosystems that help regulate the planet's climate. Perhaps most notably, he's also promised to put the U.S. on a path towards carbon neutrality. So that's where it's not adding any more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere by the year 2050. That would take massive changes in the way that we travel, the way that we do industry, make energy. And the Interior Department would play a really big role in trying to make that shift. A lot of the country's energy comes from public lands, and so does about a quarter of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. So it's a place that you can make a pretty big cut.

KELLY: Just a few seconds left, but speak to the symbolism of her nomination. The Interior Department also handles the federal government's relationship with tribal governments.

ROTT: Yeah. So for much of its history, the Interior Department was used as a tool to pretty much suppress and disenfranchise Native Americans. You know, many national parks - Yosemite, Yellowstone - exist on what was once Native land. And so many lawmakers - Republican and Democrat - pointed out today to have someone with Haaland's perspective lead the agency would be long overdue.

KELLY: NPR's Nathan Rott, thank you.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.