MCKIBBEN HAILS DEB HAALAND'S APPOINTMENT AS SEC'Y OF INTERIOR, SIGNALS PROBLEMS

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20 march 2021

Deb Haaland's Historic Appointment as Secretary of the Interior

By Bill McKibben, The New Yorker via Reader Supported News, 20 March 2021

The new Secretary of the Interior is charged with carrying out Biden’s pledge to end new leasing for oil-and-gas development on federal land.


"Dawaee”—“thanks”—began the official message from the Pueblo of Acoma at the news on Monday that Deb Haaland, the congresswoman from New Mexico, had been confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior, becoming the first Native American ever appointed to a Cabinet position. Holly Cook Macarro, the chairwoman of the American Indian Graduate Center, reached for a Chippewa word from her Red Lake Nation, in northern Minnesota: “Gichi-ogimaakwe” was the right name for Haaland, she told the Washington Post. “The highest leader-woman.” It is a sublime moment in American history: a descendant of the original inhabitants of the continent (“a thirty-fifth-generation New Mexican” is how Haaland describes herself) now runs the department that controls much of the land owned by the federal government—in fact, roughly a fifth of the country’s acreage. I’ve known and supported Haaland since her first congressional run, in 2018; her confirmation is perhaps the brightest moment yet of the Biden transition.

That said, Republican after Republican rose in the Senate chamber to vote against her—a reminder that one of the country’s two important political parties is essentially owned by the oil-and-gas industry, which has styled Haaland a “radical.” (Just four Republicans voted to confirm, including Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, of Alaska, who have obviously noticed that seventeen per cent of their state’s voting population is Native.) Fifteen House Republicans sent President Joe Biden a letter demanding that Haaland’s nomination be withdrawn, on the ground that her positions amount to “a rejection of responsible development of America’s natural resources.” Senator John Barrasso, of Wyoming, said that her views are “squarely at odds with the responsible management” of public lands.

They were referring to Biden’s campaign pledge to end new leasing for oil-and-gas development on public lands, a position that Haaland endorsed during the election, and is now charged with carrying out. At the moment, there’s a temporary moratorium, while the Administration works out a permanent plan. A permanent ban will be fought hard by the oil industry; the American Petroleum Institute sent out a tweet yesterday congratulating Haaland on her new job and suggesting that her first priority should be to lift the pause on new leases. I doubt this will happen; the Administration, so far, has been assiduous about keeping its promises, as the Canadian government found out, when it tried to squeeze Biden on his pledge to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline project. And there’s no way to lead the world on climate change—perhaps Biden’s keenest ambition—without starting to shut down American oil production. Because about a third of the oil and gas that’s produced in this country comes from public lands, and because the President has unique influence over those lands, it’s the obvious path forward.

But it won’t be an easy promise to keep, which means that Haaland is in a unique role for more than symbolic reasons: if she can figure out how to defuse opposition in the oil patch, she may find the key to unlocking the swift transition away from fossil fuels that science requires but that politics and vested interests have so far been able to block. Haaland is a Native American, but she’s also a New Mexican, and that’s important: there’s no state that gets a larger share of its budget revenues from oil-and-gas leasing on public lands—roughly three billion dollars in the last fiscal year. If that funding were to stop suddenly, with no replacement, the hit on the state’s schools and hospitals, in particular, would be heavy, because much of their funding comes directly from oil-and-gas revenue. “While you appreciate the green policies for environmental issues, you can’t strangulate the revenue streams in New Mexico,” Stan Rounds, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders, told Reuters last month. “So we’re very concerned.”

The blow won’t come all at once. Oil and gas companies have been stockpiling leases on federal lands, parcels on which they haven’t drilled and which will give them several years of buffer (and, sadly, several years more of carbon flowing into the atmosphere). And it’s not as if New Mexico—and the rest of the West—don’t have other economic opportunities. As the head of the Green Chamber of Commerce, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, pointed out, Biden’s promise to protect thirty per cent of the nation’s land for conservation “will act to galvanize the outdoor recreation economy, sustaining the growth of an industry that already contributes $2.3 billion to New Mexico’s GDP and supports more than 33,000 jobs.” Meanwhile, state lawmakers are contemplating a plan to dramatically increase training programs to turn oil-field workers into renewable-energy technicians, taking advantage of New Mexico’s abundant sunlight.

But none of that means that the transition away from fossil fuels can’t potentially damage communities and workers, especially if it’s implemented fast enough to meet the targets that physics demands. Haaland represented a third of New Mexico’s population in Congress, so she understands the problem as well as anyone—and she knows that without some kind of settlement, the oil industry will be able to make political hay for years to come. It’s the same dilemma that the Biden Administration faces on many fronts. The American Petroleum Institute, for instance, is lobbying hard to block Biden’s plan to establish half a million charging stations for electric vehicles across the country, because each of them represents a little less gas pumped. But you can be sure that the face of its campaign will be service-station owners and workers, not oil-company executives. Minnesota’s Democratic governor created a mess for Biden when he approved plans, last fall, for a tarsands pipeline in his state, bowing to the power of organized labor, which, understandably, wanted the jobs. Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, who may currently be the second most important man in Washington, represents many of the country’s remaining coal miners. In every case, some kind of deal has to be struck.

Haaland isn’t alone in having to make those deals. Marty Walsh, the mayor of Boston, who is about to be confirmed as Labor Secretary, was, in his earlier days, part of the building-trades union leadership, so he’ll likely be doing some of the behind-the-scenes negotiating with labor, using chips such as Biden’s remarkable speech of a few weeks ago, in which the President encouraged workers in Alabama, where there is an effort to organize at an Amazon facility. But much of the pressure will fall on Haaland, because the territory she’s responsible for is so vast, and the political terrain so charged. She’s a brilliant choice because, with luck, she’ll be able to summon the rest of the country to appreciate the legacy that she now protects: the amazing landscape of the American West, the ancestral home of her own people and of many of our ideas about American identity. If she can leverage those powerful sentiments to get the resources she needs to underwrite a fair transition away from fossil fuels for the Western states, she will have played an outsized role in protecting that land, and the whole world, for the next thirty-five generations.
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