Top U.S. Interior Department contender eyes renewable energy expansion on public land

renewables, Gatke, Cushing

By: Valerie Volcovici, Nichola Groom – Reuters – A top contender to lead the U.S. Interior Department under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden said the federal government should prioritize expanding renewable energy projects on public land, changing course after the Trump administration paved the way for a surge in oil and gas drilling there.

Democratic U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico told Reuters that over the last four years Republican President Donald Trump’s administration has allowed drillers to “run roughshod” over federal lands and that it is now time to make it easier for renewable energy such as solar and wind power to expand.

“Leasing practices need to be changed. We need to make sure we’re promoting and increasing clean-energy leases,” she said during an interview that is part of Reuters Events Energy Transition North America this week.

Haaland cited a 2018 federal report that showed about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from burning fuels extracted from public lands and waters.

Biden has vowed to ban all new permits for drilling on public land as part of a broader effort to bring the country’s greenhouse gas emissions down to net-zero by 2050 to fight climate change. The ban would not affect existing drilling permits, which can produce for years.

“We’re not saying, you know, ‘shut everything down today,’” Haaland said. “But this renewable energy is an industry that we know holds a great future for so many Americans and that’s what I really want to move forward.” 

Haaland, who easily won re-election to a second two-year term representing New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District including Albuquerque, was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018.

She is on a short list of potential Interior secretaries alongside her Southwestern state’s two senators: Tom Udall, who is retiring, and Martin Heinrich, according to sources familiar with the matter. Should Biden name Haaland to the post, she would become the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

She declined to confirm whether she has been vetted.

Oil and gas production on public lands topped a record 1 billion barrels last year, as the Trump administration pushed what it called an “energy dominance” agenda aimed at speeding permitting for major energy projects.

During the initial coronavirus outbreak, the Interior Department helped oil and gas companies get relief from paying royalties amid an oil market slump and expanded the industry’s access to economy-wide government lending facilities.

It did not ease rents for renewable energy projects on public land, prompting complaints of unfairness by renewable energy proponents.

Haaland did not say whether she would support a waiver program exempting any states from a potential ban on fossil fuel production permitting on federal land. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a fellow Democrat, floated the idea last year, citing her state’s reliance on revenues from federal drilling.

Haaland said there are several other measures that Biden could take on Day One of his presidency to protect public land, including issuing an order to conserve 30% of federal land and oceans by 2030.

She said Biden could also seek to reverse the Trump administration’s moves to shrink the size of national monuments like the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase in Utah, which include land sacred to local tribes, and use his authority to designate new national monuments.

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