Manchin, Haaland square off over Interior energy policies

By Michael Doyle | 05/02/2024 01:28 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took heat Thursday from senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in her second congressional appearance this week.

Deb Haaland.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Thursday. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

The Democratic chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee pulled no punches Thursday as he joined Republicans in assailing myriad Biden administration policies and practices.

In a blistering introduction to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia presented a wide-ranging indictment that blasted Interior’s energy-related decisions as well as the department’s alleged unresponsiveness to Congress.

“The radical climate advisers in the White House have put election-year politics ahead of a thoughtful and achievable long-term strategy for the country,” Manchin said.


Manchin added that “members of this committee are tired of asking again and again, ‘When will we see progress on action required by the law?’ and being told ‘soon’ or ‘we are working on it.’ Even worse, I’m tired of hearing, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.'”

Though far from the first time that Manchin has criticized the Biden administration’s energy policies, his extended recitation of specific complaints Thursday drew plaudits from committee Republicans, with Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota saying it was “right on.”

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who in 2021 provided a notable vote in support of Haaland’s confirmation, was even more direct in her denunciations that were sharp in both tone and substance.

“It seems like every single decision coming out of the department is working against Alaskans,” Murkowski said, adding that “the administration here has effectively reduced Alaska to nothing more than a debit card to pay off national environmental groups in an election year.”

The Alaska decisions include two from last month. The Bureau of Land Management officially recommended against building the Ambler Road, a proposed 211-mile roadway that would have led to mining in an undeveloped part of the state. The administration also issued a final rule restricting oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Murkowski did not ask a question, though she reminded Haaland that a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing next week will be an occasion for an interrogation about dollars and cents. Haaland, who stuck to her prepared statement following Manchin’s scathing introduction, did not respond to Murkowski’s complaints.

A similarly sharp tone arose as Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho denounced plans for the Lava Ridge wind energy project in his home state. The Lava Ridge project would entail some 400 turbines installed on about 84,000 acres of mostly federal lands in south-central Idaho.

“There are tens of thousands, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, of Idahoans who are opposed to this and only a very small handful of people who support this,” Risch said. “What do you do about that?”

“We are currently working to conduct additional consultation with local elected officials and stakeholders,” Haaland said after repeated prompting from Risch.

Pressed by Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, Haaland repeatedly said she didn’t know the answers to several specific questions concerning the greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s grizzly bear population.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been studying the bear’s Endangered Species Act status for the past 14 months, and Haaland declined to say whether she thinks the population has recovered.

“I am not a scientist. I don’t want to speculate what the science would say,” Haaland said.

The loudest volume Thursday, and the most personal aside, arose when Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley hammered away with a fast-paced string of challenges that were punctuated with a demand.

“Are you the secretary of the Department of Interior? I thought that’s why you were here. Are you the secretary? Don’t look at her, look at me,” Hawley said.

“I provide the vision, I provide the overall direction and mission,” Haaland said.

A Bureau of Land Management rule that became final last month places conservation and restoration of public lands on par with energy development and mining as appropriate uses of the 245 million acres of federal land that’s managed by the agency.

The House on Tuesday approved H.R. 3397, sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis, which if enacted would block the BLM rule. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top GOP member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has filed a companion bill that so far has attracted 12 co-sponsors.

“That rule is going to turn decades of multiple-use mandate on its head,” Barrasso said Thursday, adding that “these are lands that Congress has specifically made available for grazing, for energy, for mineral production, for recreation.”

Haaland initially defended the Biden administration’s fiscal 2025 Interior budget request in an April 17 appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. She appeared Wednesday before the House Natural Resources Committee.