Senate Advances Confirmation of Climate and Native Champion Deb Haaland

The Senate advanced President Joe Biden’s pick for the secretary of the interior, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) on Thursday with all Democrats and four Republicans voting to advance her confirmation, which will be on Monday. Haaland’s confirmation comes a day after the Senate confirmed Michael Regan to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Haaland, the first Indigenous person to be appointed to that position, has been celebrated by progressives as “a big deal.” When her nomination was announced, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) tweeted, “Historic appointment. A visionary Native woman in charge of federal lands. Unequivocally progressive. Green New Deal champion. Exquisitely experienced.”

Haaland is a supporter of the Green New Deal and has said that she will “move climate change priorities, tribal consultation and a green economic recovery forward,” as she told the Guardian last year. To climate activists, Haaland will not only be able to undo damage from the Donald Trump years, but also move the county forward on climate goals. As interior secretary, she will have jurisdiction over federal lands and can set policy on things like oil leasing.

“Deb Haaland will set a new course for the agency and its all-important management of public lands, after four years of ransacking by the oil and gas industry,” said Robert Weissman, president of progressive advocacy group Public Citizen, in a statement. “Fossil fuel corporations are panicking because Haaland will carry out the mission of the agency and protect our federal lands instead of doing the bidding of dirty energy corporations.”

One of Haaland’s priorities as a House member has been to “keep fossil fuels in the ground,” as her campaign website says. The Republicans who have voiced opposition to Haaland’s appointment over the past weeks, such as Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), have taken millions of dollars from fossil fuel companies. Haaland’s nomination, as Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said, was a “proxy fight” for fossil fuels.

Haaland will be the first Native American to serve as interior secretary and the first Indigenous person to serve in a U.S. president’s cabinet ever. As an Indigenous woman, she has faced many deep challenges in her ascent to this position. And Native people have had reason to celebrate her nomination, not only because of her potential impact on climate and Indigenous representation in the cabinet, but also because, as head of the Department of Interior (DOI), Haaland will be in charge of maintaining the government-to-government relationship between the DOI and Native American tribes.

“As Interior Secretary, Haaland would play a monumental role in improving the federal government’s relations with Indian Country,” said Nikki Pitre, director of the Center for Native American Youth, when Haaland’s nomination passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “She will be a fierce advocate for all of us, in a way that no one else can.”

The climate community also praised the Senate’s Wednesday confirmation of Michael Regan to head the EPA. As EPA administrator, Regan will have wide purview over climate and environmental rules. Regan, who will be the first Black man to run the agency, said that “environmental justice is something that is near and dear to my heart” in his Senate hearing in February.

While climate groups celebrated Regan’s confirmation, they noted that he faces huge challenges ahead. “Reversing Trump’s gutting of the EPA’s pollution, climate and science programs will be the first task, but the agency’s failings run much deeper,” said Kierán Suckling, the director of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “He’ll never succeed in making environmental justice the EPA’s central mission, stop the extinction crisis or save America from climate chaos unless he cuts through the Gordian knot of industry control.”

Regan has held various positions relating to the environment over the past decades, including lower-level EPA jobs in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

He’s been the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality since 2017, where he’s had a mixed record, reports HuffPost. Though he created an emissions reduction plan for the state and rejected a key water permit for a natural gas pipeline, he also empowered polluter Duke Energy and greenlit the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which environmental groups fought fiercely against.

Correction: The wording of this article’s title has been updated to clarify that the Senate has advanced Haaland’s confirmation, but that the official confirmation will not occur until March 15.