Will Daniel-Davis ever get confirmed at Interior?

By Emma Dumain | 03/09/2023 06:17 AM EST

The fate of Laura Daniel-Davis’ nomination for assistant secretary for land and minerals management is in limbo following the accidental release of an internal Interior Department document.

Laura Daniel-Davis.

Interior Department nominee Laura Daniel-Davis on Capitol Hill. Francis Chung/E&E News

Sen. Joe Manchin has so far this week turned his back on two of President Joe Biden’s nominees, while he refuses to formally withdraw support for a third pick about whom he has “serious concerns.”

The West Virginia Democrat’s insistence on keeping Laura Daniel-Davis in limbo — even as he publicly casts doubt about her future — is baffling and infuriating to her allies, who have been waiting since June 2021 for her to be confirmed as assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management.

“I do not make a career out of reacting to everything that Joe Manchin says that I may happen to disagree with,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “But certainly, this makes it more difficult.”


Heinrich is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Daniel-Davis nomination and of which Manchin is the chair.

At the same time, Manchin’s recent ire-filled, yet ultimately vague, indictments of the Interior Department activities within Daniel-Davis’ purview are providing fuel to her Republican opponents, who are eager to take down another Biden nominee, particularly one they view as hostile to oil and gas.

“I think [Manchin’s] statements were pretty clear,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a senior member of Energy and Natural Resources who is close with Manchin. “And as a Republican on the committee who is often willing to sit down and listen to folks, [Daniel-Davis] has certainly hardened my position against her.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan, Murkowski’s fellow Alaska Republican, said he inferred from Manchin’s latest posture that he no longer supports Daniel-Davis, the current principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

“She has no chance of being confirmed — like, less than zero,” said Sullivan, “because the chairman of the committee, Joe Manchin, put out a statement last week just making sure she’ll never move.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks during a hearing.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). | Francis Chung/POLITICO

 Manchin has cast doubts on Daniel-Davis’ nomination before, grumbling about the Biden administration’s leasing programs. He nonetheless ultimately voted for her in committee last year, heaping praise on her and calling her “incredibly well-qualified.”

But on Friday, an internal document accidentally posted to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s website appeared to put the administration’s climate concerns ahead of potential oil and gas development in Alaska (E&E News PM, March 3).

Written by Amanda Lefton, then-director of Interior’s offshore energy bureau, the memo rejected cutting royalty rates to the minimum set by the Inflation Reduction Act, despite the agency’s finding that a discount could spur more drilling and by extension bump Alaska’s revenue and help address a looming shortage of fuel supplies to power the Anchorage region.

The memo shows that Daniel-Davis signed off on the recommendations in late November, one month before a federal oil and gas lease sale in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which was paltry: Just one oil company bid on a single lease.

“If this is what the Administration truly believes and is how they are going to make decision, it is unacceptable,” Manchin, a proponent of expanded domestic oil and gas production, said in a statement. “I will not support anyone who agrees with this type of misguided reasoning.”

Then, on Wednesday, Manchin again railed against the Biden administration’s signal it might delay until December its five-year plan for offshore oil and gas drilling as part of the federal leasing program (Greenwire, March 8).

“They are putting their radical climate agenda ahead of our nation’s energy security, and they are willing to go to great lengths to do it,” Manchin said in a statement. “The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act mandates that the Secretary of the Interior ‘shall prepare’ this program to ‘best meet national energy needs.’ … I will hold their feet to the fire on this.”

A person close to the White House, granted anonymity to speak candidly, asserted that Manchin was out to thwart Daniel-Davis from the very start.

“[She] has been a pawn in the chairman’s game since the beginning,” said the person. “No one believed he would stand by his word and support her. These statements should not surprise anyone.”

‘Very, very, very livid’

On Wednesday, Manchin refused to answer on whether he was prepared to pull his support for Daniel-Davis.

“I have serious concerns,” he said, echoing a line he had shared with reporters the day before and growing testy at having to repeat himself.

Manchin earlier that day had just announced his opposition to Daniel Werfel for IRS commissioner, who still has the votes to be confirmed in the Senate. On Tuesday, he said he would not vote for Gigi Sohn to be a commissioner of the FCC, which resulted in the withdrawal of her nomination.

Sullivan was also convinced Manchin would vote against Daniel-Davis, responding, “Oh, heck, yeah” when asked whether the two had spoken since the Cook Inlet memo surfaced last week.

“He is very, very, very livid,” said Sullivan. “Like me.”

And while Manchin has not yet officially pulled the plug on Daniel-Davis, it’s unlikely he’ll schedule committee action to move her nomination to the full Senate floor anytime soon.

Even if she overcomes that hurdle, all Republicans are expected to oppose Daniel-Davis, meaning she can only afford to lose two Democratic votes and still be confirmed if the Senate is at full attendance — which it currently is not, with Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) out in treatment for clinical depression.

In the previous Congress, Daniel-Davis was subjected to two confirmation hearings, one in each legislative session, which is not unprecedented but highly unusual.

Then, in March 2022, Manchin announced he would not move Daniel-Davis to a markup as he waited to see whether Interior “intend[ed] to get back to the business of leasing and production on federal lands and waters in a robust and responsible way.”

When he finally relented and allowed a vote on Daniel-Davis in committee — and said he would support her nomination — Senate Democratic leadership did not prioritize the time for a floor vote before the end of the year, meaning she had to be renominated at the start of the new Congress in January.

A conservation advocate who was granted anonymity to speak freely told E&E News last week there was a consensus that Daniel-Davis would not be hauled in for a third hearing prior to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee convening to vote to advance her nomination to the full Senate. But it’s now unclear whether Manchin would still allow that to be the case.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the ranking member of the committee who implored Manchin to hold the additional hearing back in 2022, said he would expect Manchin to schedule another if Daniel-Davis doesn’t withdraw her nomination first.

How the administration acts in the coming days regarding the future of the Willow project, an $8 billion drilling plan in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, could also affect Daniel-Davis’ standing as she remains a proxy for the administration’s broader agenda.

Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, who led a letter last year from more than 100 women in support of Daniel-Davis’ nomination, said she was still holding out hope Manchin would come around (E&E Daily, Dec. 15, 2022).

“He supported her nomination twice over the last two years, based on her qualifications for the position, and none of those have changed,” she said in an interview Wednesday, noting that Manchin has had no trouble confirming nominees of the opposite party in the past.

“He’s been very deferential to presidents, including President Trump,” Rokala continued. “I don’t know why he’s holding these Biden nominees, and Laura in particular, to a higher standard.”

Reporter Heather Richards contributed.