April 05, 2021

Interior Secretary Debra Halland: Restorer of Balance?

Posted April 5, 2021 by Virginia Robbins

Debra Halland made history when the Senate voted 51-40 on March 15, 2021 to confirm her to be Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). She is the first Native American ever to serve in a cabinet position. DOI has a budget of more than $12 billion and about 70,000 employees. It oversees more than 480 million acres of public lands (including tribal lands), 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, and 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf. DOI is also responsible for the maintenance of government-to-government relationships with the more than 570 federally recognized Native American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. 

Secretary Halland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe of Native American Pueblo people located in west-central New Mexico near Albuquerque. Here’s the vision statement of the Pueblo’s Environmental and Natural Resources Department: 

The Pueblo of Laguna’s natural world is a blessing, the heart of our culture and traditions, in balance and harmony, offering self-sufficiency for generations to come.  We have healthy natural systems, with flowing rivers, streams, and springs; clean water and air; revitalized forests and rangelands; native plants; abundant wildlife; thriving agriculture; reclaimed mine lands; renewable energy; and protected ancestral lands and cultural sites, all supporting prosperity in our way of life.

Will the Pueblo’s vision of a natural world in balance and harmony influence Secretary Halland’s decision making? Undoubtedly. During Halland’s confirmation hearings, questioners revealed concern that her environmental activism posed a risk to reliable power and access to fossil fuels. Some Senators deemed her a potential threat to the fossil fuel industry’s investments in oil and gas drilling, and oil and gas pipeline projects. They had reason for concern. Secretary Halland is an advocate for environmental protection and conservation. In 2016 she joined the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. After being elected to Congress in 2018, another historic first as one of two Native American representatives elected that year, Secretary Halland became an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal calling for the U.S. to move toward renewable and zero-emission energy sources in the next decade. Secretary Halland opposes oil and gas exploration on public land and natural gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. A 2018 report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that an average of 24% of American carbon dioxide emissions came from energy produced on public lands between 2005-2014.   

Today Debra Halland leads a Department that during the Trump administration:

(i) reversed Obama-era environmental protections on public lands (an 85% reduction in the size of Bears Ears and an almost 50% downsizing of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments that increased the potential for resource extraction; five Native American tribes who revere the cultural significance of Bears Ears responded with a lawsuit in federal court);
(ii) offered for lease more than 25 million acres onshore and more than 78 million acres offshore (remember the proposal to open up 90% of the Outer Continental Shelf off the U.S. coast to oil and gas exploration to advance American energy dominance?); and
(iii) deeply strained relationships with tribal communities (see parenthetical to (i) above).

We can expect an “about-face” from Secretary Halland’s DOI as she implements President Biden’s environmental and energy agenda on public lands and offshore areas. Some of her environmental positions are to the left of those of President Biden, who during his presidential campaign sought to reassure the energy industry that he wouldn’t shut down existing drilling or fracking on federal lands. Halland has stated that she will lead DOI consistent with the President’s agenda. We should nonetheless expect her to influence the future direction of the President’s agenda and she will have an opportunity to do just that in connection with DOI’s implementation of the President’s January 27, 2021 Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

 One of the Order’s directives to DOI is to pause new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and offshore water to the extent possible and to review existing oil and gas leasing on these properties. The Order does not affect oil and gas drilling activity on private or state lands or lands the U.S. holds in trust or restricted status for Tribes or individual Indians. The White House has stated that the review of the federal oil and gas program provides the chance “to ensure that it serves the public interest and to restore balance on America’s public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations.”  I am struck by how similar this text is to the vision of the Pueblo of Laguna for whom the natural world is considered “a blessing…in balance and harmony, offering self-sufficiency for generations to come.”

In the midst of its review of oil and natural gas development, on March 29, 2021, DOI was assigned a key role in moving toward a carbon-neutral economy when the Biden administration announced a plan to harness offshore wind in coastal waters nationwide to produce 30,000 megawatts of power, enough for 10 million homes. In support of the plan, DOI’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced a new priority Wind Energy Area in an area of shallow waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast. This area is home to more than 20 million people whose electricity demands will grow exponentially if we are successful in decarbonizing our transportation and building sectors. 

If you are curious about indigenous knowledge, you may enjoy Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a plant ecologist, Distinguished Teaching Professor, and founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry located in Syracuse. Dr. Kimmerer states in the preface that her book offers a braid of stories that “allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” Solving the climate crisis will require us to forge a more reciprocal relationship with the land. Secretary Halland can probably show us how to restore that balance.