Laura Daniel-Davis did her first stint at the Interior Department during the Clinton administration in 1993 as an aide to then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
She’s since climbed her way up the ranks in the department — working in senior Interior posts under three Democratic presidents.
And this week, Daniel-Davis stepped into her highest-ranking role yet when President Joe Biden appointed her as Interior’s acting deputy to Secretary Deb Haaland. Daniel-Davis took the job this week after Tommy Beaudreau left the position to go to work at a law firm.
Daniel-Davis will draw on her years of experience at the department, on Capitol Hill and in conservation groups as she oversees Interior’s massive 70,000-person staff and navigates the complicated politics surrounding a department tasked with protecting vast public lands while also managing energy production in those areas.
During the Clinton years, Daniel-Davis recalled to the Senate in 2021, “I first saw how much this department touches people’s lives in very real ways every day — whether we live in the West or any other region of the country.”
She’s well-known among conservationists and former Interior Department staffers, many of whom heralded her appointment as deputy administrator. She’s facing criticism, however, from industry representatives and from senators who opposed her confirmation to another high-ranking Interior Department post.
Her allies broadly expressed their support this week, even as some lawmakers criticized the Biden administration for appointing her to one top job after she failed to win confirmation for another.
“Laura is uniquely suited to be the acting deputy secretary of the sprawling Interior Department,” said David Hayes, a former Biden White House official who served as Interior’s deputy secretary in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Daniel-Davis served as Hayes’ chief of staff from 1999 until 2001.
Biden on Wednesday officially withdrew Daniel-Davis’ nomination to serve as assistant secretary for land and minerals management after that nomination stalled in the Senate, in part due to opposition from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell who represents oil and gas and renewable industry clients, called her appointment an “end run” around Congress.
“We’ve been down this road and it didn’t end well for [Laura Daniel-Davis] and Interior,” Maisano said in an email. “This end run is more risky given the firm stance chairman Manchin has already taken, currently has and will keep taking.”
The Interior Department declined E&E News’ request to interview Daniel-Davis for this story.
‘A quick study’
The job of deputy secretary — serving as the sprawling department’s chief operating officer — is “no small task,” Hayes said.
The Interior Department has a broad swath of federal employees, responsibilities that sometimes conflict, and it’s a lightning rod for critics of the administration.
“Laura is a quick study who has seen it all,” Hayes said. “She is an excellent manager — a good communicator who listens and learns, while providing clear, decisive direction — a necessity in that job.”
Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, worked with Daniel-Davis at NWF, where she spent much of the Trump administration.
“Everyone who has worked alongside Laura Daniel Davis has seen firsthand that she is immensely qualified to help steward our wildlife and natural resources,” O’Mara said in a statement. “We look forward to working with her in this new role.”
After serving in the Clinton Interior Department, Daniel-Davis worked at the law firm Latham & Watkins and as deputy chief of staff to then-Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). She served as chief of staff to then-Interior secretaries Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell during the Obama administration before leading the Heritage Outdoors Project of the Resources Legacy Fund and working in senior roles at NWF.
Daniel-Davis has been a key player in Biden’s Interior Department since the start of his administration. Biden announced her appointment as principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management on Jan. 20, 2021, the day he was sworn in.
The Interior Department’s new acting deputy traces her interest in the outdoors to her childhood in Columbia, Md.
“My sister and I spent our time outside when we were growing up,” Daniel-Davis said in her opening statement during her Senate confirmation hearing. “We were lucky — there was so much open space in our community, and we splashed through the river and built forts and made our own trails in the woods. It was the beginning of my appreciation for nature and wildlife, which has such a positive impact on both your mind and your physical well-being.”
Her mother was a high school teacher and principal and her father was a Senate aide and a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Daniel-Davis said.
Laura is “a dog-lover and a beach-goer who likes people and is quick to laugh,” said Hayes, who most recently worked with Daniel-Davis when he served in the Biden White House. “She has accumulated good friends and admirers at every stop of her career.”
Her friends include “Fight Club” actor Edward Norton, Hayes said, with whom she grew up in Maryland. Daniel-Davis and Norton both attended Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. Daniel-Davis played on the school’s softball team, according to the school’s 1985 yearbook.
Daniel-Davis later attended Wake Forest University, where she graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, according to her LinkedIn page. Her husband, Mark Davis — another Wake Forest graduate — is vice president at Oxford Finance. They have a daughter who was in college at the time of Daniel-Davis’ September 2021 confirmation hearing.
A rocky road as Biden’s nominee
Daniel-Davis was first nominated as Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management in 2021, a post that oversees Interior’s critical energy and mining bureaus.
But she never officially took on that role, and was quickly ensnared in a confirmation fight on Capitol Hill over Biden’s energy policies.
Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with power to advance or reject her nomination, was central in indefinitely delaying Daniel-Davis from confirmation as retribution for the Biden administration’s energy policies, particularly for holding back oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters.
Her long period of limbo launched an unsuccessful lobbying campaign by environmental groups on Capitol Hill, and inspired some claims that her treatment was rooted in sexism, given the much smoother confirmation of male nominees like Beaudreau — who preceded Daniel-Davis as deputy secretary until he stepped down in October.
Despite a professional history working for mainstream organizations and individuals, some Republicans have slammed Daniel-Davis for harboring or advancing “radical” environmental policies. Daniel-Davis’ defenders have said that labeling is unfair.
Still, blaming Daniel-Davis for Biden energy policies isn’t out of left field.
Despite the attempted blockade by some members of Congress, she has become a critical member of the inner circle guiding Biden’s energy policies on public lands and offshore, many of which have angered Republicans and oil companies, according to federal documents.
Major decisions made on her watch have included proposing the smallest offshore oil and gas program in history, instituting a short moratorium on new drilling leases, a ban on mining in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness area, and the cancellation of existing oil and gas drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
She was also in her position during moves that climate activists and environmental groups viewed as major losses to fossil fuel lobbying, like Interior’s approval earlier this year of ConocoPhillips’ massive Willow oil project in the Arctic.
“Laura has been a key player behind the scenes in keeping Interior on track,” Hayes said.
He credited Daniel-Davis for beefing up the staff at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to support offshore wind development and helping to address a bleeding Bureau of Land Management after the Trump administration moved its headquarters to Colorado, losing a host of longtime career staff.
“She has had her hands full,” Hayes said.