(Daily Montanan) In her first congressional hearing as the leader of the Interior Department, Secretary Deb Haaland fielded questions from members of a U.S. House spending panel Tuesday on the major conservation and energy initiatives that President Joe Biden has outlined.
She was noncommittal about some contentious and high-profile items of deep interest to Western states, like the pause on new oil and gas leases and the permanent location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. But Haaland did urge the subcommittee to send her department robust spending for next fiscal year and longer-term jobs programs.
Increased funding for Interior in fiscal 2022, which begins Oct. 1, could help combat climate change, speed a transition to clean energy and provide resources to Native American communities, Haaland told the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.
Congress could also take a first step toward funding a Civilian Climate Corps and other Interior-related programs that are part of the jobs and infrastructure proposal the administration released earlier this month.
“This nation has the opportunity of a lifetime to strengthen our country, fight climate change and improve our way of life for generations to come,” she said. “We need both a strong annual budget for the department and the president’s jobs plan.”
Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American Cabinet secretary, pledged greater federal cooperation with tribes.
While federal agencies have at points throughout their history engaged in only nominal consultation with tribes, Biden has committed to meaningful tribal consultation on issues that affect them, she said.
The administration’s initial budget request called for $17.4 billion in spending for Interior programs, a 16% increase for the department over the last year of President Donald Trump’s administration. A more detailed request is expected later this spring.
In the absence of specific line items, Republicans on the panel raised concerns about two of the administration’s major initiatives at the department: Its goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030 and its pause of new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands.
“The 30 by 30 rule, that scares the life out of us in the West,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, told Haaland, adding that he assumed most of the acreage needed to reach that goal would come from Western states.
Subcommittee ranking Republican David Joyce, of Ohio, said he worried the 30 by 30 plan would block natural resource extraction and “sustainable, responsible use” on large swaths of land throughout the country, and that the acreage goal would mean a focus on vast Western lands and dissuade people in other parts of the country from doing their part for conservation.
Joyce and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said climate change needs to be addressed—a position not shared by every congressional Republican—but said they still had concerns about how the administration has sought to move away from fossil fuel energy.
Joyce said he worried the administration’s pause on new oil and gas leases on federal lands would lead to more restrictions on fossil fuel development that he said was still needed.
“I urge you not to lock America out of the domestic energy and minerals it needs for a smooth transition to a cleaner energy future,” he said.
Renewable energy development requires critical minerals, Simpson said. Federal regulations make access to such mineral deposits difficult, he said, leading the U.S. to import minerals and causing a national security vulnerability.
Haaland agreed that the U.S. must have domestic mineral extraction and that it must be done in an environmentally responsible way.
The department is still reviewing oil and gas leasing policy, Haaland said.
The department will publish a report on its review of oil and gas leasing policy this summer, a spokeswoman said by email.
Conservation jobs and BLM headquarters
Democrats were more broadly supportive of Biden’s Interior policies and proposed budget, though they still raised questions.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she was “encouraged” by Biden’s budget request for Interior. The 16% increase for the department is the same raise the Biden administration proposed for all domestic discretionary spending.
“This budget is a refreshing change from the draconian budgets the committee has received over the last four years,” Pingree said.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, told Haaland she was concerned that the Civilian Climate Corps, a program outlined in Biden’s jobs and infrastructure blueprint released last month, would be too focused on rural areas.
Urban and suburban areas like the stretch of Northeast Ohio Kaptur represents would also benefit from conservation initiatives and jobs creation, she said.
Haaland said the program would provide a pathway to good-paying jobs while fighting climate change and would “be important everywhere.”
Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee asked for an update on the location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. The Trump administration moved the headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., last year.
BLM manages 63 percent of Nevada. Lee said the issue was “incredibly important” to her state and called the bureau “the gatekeeper for any type of land-use decisions” there.
Haaland didn’t disclose any decisions about the future location of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. The move affected nearly 300 BLM career staff, with many of those positions still vacant, Haaland said.
She said the department was “still gathering information” that would instruct the decision about whether to keep the headquarters in Colorado or return it to Washington. Haaland noted that the move upset the bureau’s operations, and that she wanted to avoid a repetition.
“It was sort of an upset when they moved across the country, and the last thing we want to do is cause that again,” Haaland said. “So we’re being very careful about how we’re approaching it.”
The Trump administration and many Republicans from the West said the move would help the BLM better manage the lands it’s responsible for, more than 99% of which is west of the Mississippi River. Stewart repeated that point Tuesday.
“The BLM is best served when the leadership is living in the location in which they have great responsibility,” Stewart said. “There’s real advantages in having that leadership out West.”
The BLM maintains field offices throughout the country and most employees were stationed in the West, even when its base was in Washington.