Energy & Environment

Biden makes historic pick with Haaland for Interior secretary

Bonnie Cash

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) has been selected to lead the Interior Department in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, making history as the first Native American tapped for a Cabinet position.

Haaland, who has been backed by a number of progressive groups as well as tribes, would take over a sprawling, 70,000-person agency with a mandate from Biden to help deliver on his climate promises.

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said in a statement thanking Biden for the nomination.

“As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior has a role and I will be a partner in addressing these challenges by protecting our public lands and moving our country towards a clean energy future.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Haaland would likely deliver a significant turnaround for an agency that has rolled back environmental and endangered species protections and expanded oil and gas drilling. Biden has pledged to bar any new oil and gas leasing on public lands — an effort likely to require action from Interior.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, alongside Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), and was an early backer of the Green New Deal.

“It’s profound to think about the history of this country’s policies to exterminate Native Americans and the resilience of our ancestors that gave me a place here today,” Haaland said.

“This historic moment will not go by without the acknowledgment of the many people who have believed in me over the years and have had the confidence in me for this position. I’m forever grateful and will do everything I can to be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”

Her potential nomination generated significant momentum, particularly after news that she was being vetted by the Biden team.

She would make history not only as a Cabinet secretary but as the first Native American to take the reins of an agency with significant responsibility to tribes — an area where critics say the department has often fallen short.

“It’s a mystical opportunity for this agency to do something historic,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who had initially been backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for the Interior job before it threw its weight behind Haaland.

“The agency that was set up eons ago, Interior, to basically disenfranchise and colonize Indigenous America, for Deb to be secretary America will have its first Indigenous person in a Cabinet but more historic, in Interior, in the agency that was set up for that purpose. Maybe I’m naive but there are certain political scripts that are almost written for you,” he said.

But he added he didn’t want the historic nature of her selection to overshadow the experience she would bring to the job. Haaland has led the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

“We’re talking about a formidable candidate with a great deal of support from various constituencies,” Grijalva said of Haaland. “It would be good for the Biden administration, good for history, and it’d be good for the agency that badly needs to be repaired and reprioritized. This is a woman that has the capacity for the job.”

Biden’s pick followed news that House Democratic leadership would back the choice, even as their majority reaches its narrowest margin in modern history.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday she would make “an excellent choice.”

New Mexico law doesn’t require Haaland to vacate her seat until she is confirmed for a new position, at which point the state would have a maximum of 91 days to hold an election.

Haaland’s selection marks victory for the Native Americans, progressives and environmental groups that campaigned hard for the congresswoman as the Biden team also considered Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and former Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, who is also Native American, for the job.

Last week NDN Collective, an indigenous rights group, Sunrise Movement, a youth climate organization, took the unusual step of asking Udall to step aside and back Haaland for the job. 

Haaland was an early backer of the Green New Deal, opposes fracking, and has pushed back against the Trump administrations shrinking of monuments like Bears Ear and Grand Staircase Escalante.

“Haaland is a perfect choice — she is a fierce ally of our movement who has fought for renewable energy job creation in the House,” Sunrise said in a statement.

“With a progressive leader at the helm, we can make real progress on stopping climate change and ensure sovereignty and dignity for all native people and justice for all.”

Many Senate Democrats applauded the choice, though Haaland’s progressive backing could make her a more difficult pick to get through the Republican-led Senate.

“My friend Deb Haaland is a fighter for America’s public lands & a champion for Native communities. I’m delighted by her historic nomination to lead Interior. She’ll help our nation honor its promises, & make real change to protect our lands & waters for generations to come,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote on twitter.

Other environmental groups likewise praised the choice, arguing Haaland would steadily reverse a number of Trump era decision that have expanded development of public lands.

“We now need someone at the Interior Department who can correct the mistakes of the past four years, someone whose passions for the environment run deep,” Steve Blackledge, senior director of the conservation program for Environment America, said in a statement.

“Rep. Haaland has shown a deep conviction for protecting the lands that make America, America the Beautiful.”

Updated 7:54 p.m.

Tags Biden cabinet Biden transition Deb Haaland Elizabeth Warren Interior Department Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Sharice Davids Tom Udall

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