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New Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Is Unprecedented

Not only will a Native American for the first time oversee the government’s relationship to Indigenous Americans, but an avowed environmental activist will manage the nation’s natural resources.

Representative Deb Haaland (NM-01) has been confirmed as Secretary of Interior, by Moms Clean Air Force, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In her farewell address to the House of Representatives, New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland said to her colleagues about her new role as interior secretary, “I have the opportunity to make a real difference for communities everywhere by addressing climate change, protecting voting rights, [and] fighting for racial, environmental, and economic justice.” It was a far cry from the oil and gas lobbyists who have long occupied the position she now assumes.

The 60-year-old Haaland is an activist-turned-lawmaker who was among the crop of progressive women of color who won a slew of races in the 2018 midterm races. She became one of the two first Indigenous women ever to win a congressional seat. Now, in a 51-40 Senate vote, Haaland broke barriers once more in winning confirmation as the nation’s first Indigenous interior secretary and first Indigenous Cabinet secretary.

I had the chance to speak with Haaland in 2018 before she won her congressional seat representing New Mexico. Six months before she was elected, she told me that “creating a renewable energy revolution in our state and in our country” was a central issue for her as a candidate and that she was working “to get big corporate money out of politics because I don’t believe that our elected officials should be working for the lobbyists—they should be working for the people.”

It isn’t just Haaland’s Native American identity that symbolizes progress. What makes her a formidable force is that her racial and ethnic background in combination with politically progressive views is antithetical to power and capital. She is now in a position to direct the federal agency whose central task is to “manage and sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources, [honor] our nation’s responsibilities to tribal nations, and [advocate] for America’s island communities.” Not only will a Native American for the first time oversee the government’s relationship to Indigenous Americans, but an avowed environmental activist will manage how the nation’s natural resources serve the interests of the oil and gas industry—or not. No wonder Republicans are terrified.

The fear was on display during Haaland’s confirmation hearings when Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) led the GOP opposition to her nomination, claiming that she had a “very well documented and hostile record toward made-in-America energy, toward natural resource development, toward wildlife management and sportsmen.” Daines denounced Haaland’s “very far left divisive positions that will fail to represent the West, to be in the mainstream of commonsense and balance.” Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, concurred with his colleague, deeming Haaland’s views as “radical.” The Center for Responsive Politics points out that both Daines and Barrasso have each received more than half a million dollars from the oil and gas industry.

As interior secretary, Haaland is as much of an opposite of her white male predecessors as one can imagine. In 2018, President Donald Trump’s first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told oil and gas industry representatives seeking to drill on public lands that the federal government should partner with them and “not be in the business of being an adversary.” At another conference he told the industry that the U.S. government “should work for you.” Zinke then resigned in a cloud of ethics scandals and went on to work as a consultant for the former industry clients he once was tasked with regulating. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, known as “a walking conflict of interest,” then replaced Zinke. As one analyst described it, Bernhardt had “alternated between lobbying gigs and jobs in the Interior Department since 1998.”

Both Zinke and Bernhardt represent the epitome of the corrupt “revolving door” between corporate lobbyists and government. In contrast, before she ran for Congress, Haaland visited tribal leaders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and led the New Mexico Democratic Party’s divestment from Wells Fargo over the bank’s funding of that controversial pipeline project.

As interior secretary, Haaland will oversee the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has been accused of routinely auctioning off federal lands to oil and gas companies and ignoring tribal leadership in drilling projects. Haaland told me that her ancestral homeland of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico remains continuously under threat from the BLM, which favors hydraulic fracturing (fracking) projects on grounds that are considered sacred. Indeed, during his last year as interior secretary, Bernhardt proceeded to lease lands near Chaco Canyon for fracking and mining operations at the same time as tribes were occupied with trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic. Brian Sybert, executive director of Conservation Lands Foundation, complained that “[o]nce again, Secretary Bernhardt is putting profits ahead of the people, and is failing to recognize the impact of the pandemic on tribal communities who hold Chaco Culture National Historical Park sacred.”

Now, for the first time in this nation’s history, an Indigenous person not beholden to corporate interests will wield decision-making power over oil and gas projects on federal lands. While Biden’s choice of Haaland to lead the Interior Department is indeed commendable and forward-thinking, the dangers of shaping policy through departmental discretion alone is that future administrations can easily reverse progressive trends. In order to truly cement a climate-justice-centered approach to the management of natural resources, Congress and the president need to lead through legislation. The environmental organization Food and Water Watch hailed Haaland’s confirmation as the first step in a fracking ban. But, as the group rightly asserts, “Now the White House must follow through on a ban on fracking on public lands.”

As soon as he took office, the president signed an executive order suspending oil and gas drilling on public lands for two months. But the move is symbolic and falls far short of an actual ban. Sensitive to relentless Republican accusations of wanting to ban the extractive industry, Biden took pains to reiterate as he signed the executive order, “Let me be clear, and I know this always comes up: We’re not going to ban fracking.”

During Haaland’s confirmation hearings, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) was correct in seeing the battle over her nomination as a “proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels.” Indigenous Americans have led the fight for climate justice for years, successfully linking responsible stewardship of our land and water with the need to switch to renewable energy sources. Haaland’s identity and politics taken together are a threat to the oil and gas industry, its lobbyists like Zinke and Bernhardt, and its political champions like Daines and Barrasso. But in order to move past symbolism and avoid turning her identity into a tokenistic stunt, the Democratic Party leadership must itself embrace and embody Haaland’s environmentalism.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.