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Biden selects Native American lawmaker to lead US Interior

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Biden selects Native American lawmaker to lead US Interior

President-elect Joe Biden named U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to head the U.S. Department of the Interior, in a move that places a Native American at the helm of the agency that oversees tribal coordination for the first time in its history, according to national media reports.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Haaland would oversee the agency responsible for managing mineral leasing on a substantial portion of federal lands as well as species and habitat regulation, and national park operations. The Interior Department is also responsible for U.S. government coordination with tribal governments, and Haaland's selection followed a public campaign by tribal leaders and environmentalists to chose a Native American.

The first-term progressive lawmaker could face an uphill confirmation battle should Republicans maintain control of the U.S. Senate. Georgia will hold a runoff election in January for its two U.S. Senate seats, which will determine party control of the upper chamber.

If confirmed, Haaland could play an important role in advancing Biden's climate and environmental goals, potentially curbing fossil fuel development on federal lands. The former vice president has outlined plans to address climate change, including banning new oil and gas permitting on federal lands, modifying royalties and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Trump administration opened up to oil and natural gas drilling in mid-August.

A GOP-led Senate would likely be less receptive to Biden's ambitious climate and clean energy proposals, making his cabinet nominees potentially all the more important in advancing such policies through regulatory actions.

Conservation groups praised Biden's pick, noting the importance of placing the first Indigenous woman at the helm of the federal agency overseeing protections for Native Americans.

"Congresswoman Deb Haaland is a force an inspirational leader and advocate for climate action, conservation, and sovereign Tribal Nations," Tiernan Sittenfeld said in a same-day statement. "She's well positioned to drive forward Biden's ambitious conservation agenda including protecting 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 and ensure we use all of our tools to fight climate change and share nature's benefits equitably with all communities." Sittenfeld is the senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters.

American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Mike Sommers said the oil and gas trade group will closely monitor Biden's administration to ensure it fulfills its promises to the energy workforce, namely in protecting jobs.

"We stand ready to work with the President-elect's nominees once confirmed to tackle the challenge of climate change by building on America's progress in delivering affordable and reliable energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to generational lows," Sommers said in a statement. "In the year ahead, we will continue to advocate for policies that promote technological innovation, advance modern energy infrastructure and support access to natural gas and oil resources — both on federal and private lands — which will be critical to rebuilding our economy and maintaining America's status as a global energy leader."

Haaland was elected to Congress in 2018 and was one of the first Native American women ever elected to the federal legislature. She was subsequently elevated to vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, a perch from which the Arizona native has been a player within the environmentalist wing of the House Democratic caucus.

She endorsed the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and opposed major decisions by the Trump administration to expand extractive development on lands managed by the Interior that were held sacred by tribal groups, including the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Prior to her move to Washington, Haaland earned a Juris Doctor degree in Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 2006 and served as tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo from January 2013 to November 2015.

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.