Update: On March 15, 2021, the Senate voted to confirm Deb Haaland as Secretary of Interior.
President-elect Joe Biden tapped Deb Haaland to head up the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees our nation's public lands, wildlife conservation, and key aspects of energy development. Currently a House representative from New Mexico, Haaland has led the national parks, forests, and public lands subcommittee on the House Natural Resources Committee. She would be the first Native American to lead the department.
If confirmed, Haaland will oversee an agency the Trump administration systematically worked to dismantle. Secretaries Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt did everything in their power to make the department as industry friendly as possible — shrinking national monuments, gutting endangered species protections, throwing open the doors to fossil fuel extraction, and more.
Though Haaland will face significant challenges, she can begin to reverse harmful policies and ensure our public lands are conserved and used in ways that benefit us all.
Here are five priorities Haaland and the department should act on right away:
- Restore curbs on methane waste. Methane is a potent pollutant that accelerates climate change. Wasteful practices like “flaring” burn off excess methane from oil and gas wells. Flaring also threatens public health because it releases cancer-causing toxins into the air. Low-wealth individuals and people of color, who are more likely to live near oil and gas wells, are at especially high risk. To protect public and environmental health, the department should a) settle lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s removal of curbs on methane waste, b) restore the Obama-era protections that Trump repealed, and c) reduce methane pollution on public lands.
- Restore Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protections. President Trump is racing against the clock to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge in the country, to oil and gas drilling. This fragile landscape is home to cherished wildlife, such as polar bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and eagles; a fossil fuel spill would put these species in catastrophic danger and be nearly impossible to clean up. Haaland should restore all refuge protections rolled back by the Trump administration and explore rescinding Trump-approved oil and gas leases there.
- Restart climate adaptation planning. To mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we must draft and implement climate adaption plans on our public lands. Protecting wild and scenic places, historic landmarks, and threatened and endangered species from sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, and other climate impacts must once again be at the center of Interior’s mission, as it was before Trump took office. Making it so will pay other dividends, too, such as safeguarding public health and nearby communities.
- Restrict leases that permit offshore drilling for oil and gas in all coastal states. Early in the Trump administration, Zinke proposed a dangerous plan to open almost all U.S. coastal areas to oil and gas drilling. Undeterred by disasters like the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the administration was moving full steam ahead until several coastal state governors pushed back. The administration curtailed leasing, but only in states with governors allied with Trump. Biden and Haaland should take a more prudent approach and restrict fossil fuel leases in all coastal areas. Doing so would safeguard vital marine and coastal ecosystems and protect shoreline communities from toxic spills and other disasters.
- Require offsets for environmental harms on our public lands. Millions of acres on our federal public lands are open to activities like grazing, mining, hiking, and camping. When these activities degrade or pollute these lands, Interior should require responsible parties to completely offset damage with environmental restoration projects and other efforts; curtail uses of public lands that generate carbon pollution; and advance the federal government’s efforts to combat climate change.
These recommendations barely scratch the surface, but they're an important place to start. Additional priorities include implementing a new federal land conservation law and executing the Land and Water Conservation Fund at the federal level. Haaland should also revoke the department’s recent decision to give states unprecedented veto power over federal recreational land acquisitions.
Trump’s Interior Department violated its obligations as a trustee of the nation’s public lands and resources. Haaland can begin to repair the damage and restore the federal government’s commitment to mitigate and adapt to climate change. She can also get started on preserving our public lands and resources to ensure their continued enjoyment. Doing so will restore policies that are consistent with the rule of law and that benefit the American people, the communities in which they live, and our precious natural heritage.
Editor’s note: This post is part of the Center for Progressive Reform’s Policy for a Just America initiative. Learn more on CPR's website.
Top image by the Office of Rep. Deb Haaland.