Rep. Deb Haaland’s bid to become the first Native American interior secretary was made more likely Thursday by an unlikely Republican supporter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of oil-rich Alaska, who said she still had serious reservations about Haaland’s past opposition to drilling.
The committee vote could easily have been a tie that would have complicated Haaland’s nomination. Her opposition to new leases for drilling oil and gas on federal land made her a target for Republicans on the committee.
For weeks, Murkowski felt tugged by both history and lobbying from the oil and gas industry.
“So, I have really struggled through this one,” Murkowski said in a six-minute statement. “How to reconcile a historic nomination with my concerns about an individual’s and an administration’s conception of what Alaska’s future should be.”
Murkowski said that Alaskans were extraordinarily proud of Haaland but that they were also concerned about her “opposition to resource development on public lands, including her opposition to key projects in Alaska and her questioning of the vital role that Alaska Native Corporations serve in our communities.”
Watching Murkowski’s presentation live stream on the committee’s website, Crystal EchoHawk, a Haaland supporter, was certain the senator was going to vote no. “That’s what it sounded like,” EchoHawk said. “We had been hearing before the vote that Sen. Murkowski would vote yes, but I was holding my breath during her remarks thinking that something had changed.”
Murkowski spoke after Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), an ardent supporter of oil and gas development whose remarks against Haaland’s positions were cutting.
“I, along with other Western senators, have consistently opposed nominees who hold such radical views,” Barrasso said. He listed them: support of the Green New Deal, opposition to lifting protections for grizzly bears and opposition to the Keystone oil pipeline.
Barrasso accused Haaland of giving vague answers to pointed questions from Republicans about the oil industry and jobs. “Haaland’s extreme policy views,” he said, “and lack of substantive answers … to me disqualify her for the job.”
Murkowski is an ally of Barrasso, but she also hails from a state where Alaska Natives are about 20 percent of the population. “We are a very diverse state,” Murkowski said. “We’ve got many, many Indigenous peoples and cultures who have lived here, as they say, since time immemorial.”
Alaska Natives came out in waves to support Murkowski in her last election, holding up “Vote Murkowski” signs in bitterly cold weather.
They were also firmly behind Haaland, and they made that clear to Murkowski, who put aside her doubts about the Biden administration’s agenda.
“I have decided to support this nomination today, to support the first Native American who would hold this position, and with the expectation that Representative Haaland will be true to her word — not just on matters relating to Native peoples, but also responsible resource development and every other issue,” Murkowski said.
“I am going to place my trust in Representative Haaland and her team, despite some very real misgivings,” she said.
Judith LeBlanc, executive director of the Native Organizers Alliance, applauded Murkowski. “I think Senator Murkowski acted with an understanding of the history and current significance of having someone like Deb Haaland lead the Department of Interior,” she said.
The oil and gas industry knows it still has a supporter in Murkowski, LeBlanc said. “The oil industry is playing the long game,” she said. “They know Murkowski has a role in deciding the direction of drilling in the Arctic. She lives to fight another day in ensuring the oil industry will get their way.”