Montanans have good reason to pay close attention to changes in the Interior Department, of all federal agencies. Nearly 27 million acres in Montana are federal lands — almost 29% of the total land in the state. The Interior Department includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as seven other agencies.
So Montanans expect our federal representatives to keep the department’s leadership under close scrutiny, to advocate for policies of importance to Montanans and to sound the alarm when problems arise.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines has some legitimate concerns about Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland, a Democrat representing New Mexico in the U.S. House. Those concerns reflect the issues raised by many residents who will be affected by the new changes in the department’s direction.
Where Daines has veered badly off-base is in his repeated strident description of Rep. Haaland as “a far-left, hardline ideologue with radical views.” This kind of rhetoric is at best unproductive, and at worst an unearned insult to Haaland — and to the many Montanans who share her ideas on how to address environmental concerns, improve land management and advance relations with Indian nations.
Haaland, who will be the first Native American to hold a cabinet position in the history of the United States, answered such concerns over two days of hearings, and last week the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-9 to support her confirmation.
Daines, a Republican member of that committee, supplied one of the “no” votes. Montana’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, announced he will vote to confirm Haaland.
Two years ago, Daines and Tester were also split on the nomination of David Bernhardt for the same post. In explaining his opposition, Tester released a statement expressing concern about Bernhardt’s support of policies “that threaten Montana’s clean air, clean water, and our booming outdoor economy — and as acting secretary, he has failed to show understanding of the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to Indian Country.”
Montanans have had a front-row seat as those policies played out over the past couple of years. In western Montana, residents were particularly worried about the Interior Department’s decision to ease its push against two oil and gas drilling leases located in land sacred to the Blackfeet Tribe and adjacent to Glacier National Park.
An Interior secretary who is not a former lobbyist for the oil industry, who supports initiatives to protect our irreplaceable environment and who has a better understanding of American Indian issues would, we daresay, be heartily embraced by many Montanans.
Yet in his statement explaining his vote against Haaland last week, Daines called her “a far-left ideologue who is out of touch with Montana.” As examples of this “far-left ideology,” he listed her opposition to the Keystone pipeline, support for the Green New Deal, and said she has called for “a ban” on all pipelines and new energy development, among other complaints. However, nearly all of these positions align with those of the Biden administration, which is a primary reason why she was chosen in the first place.
President Biden signed an executive order putting a pause to oil and gas leasing in order to allow a much-needed review of the program. While current oil and gas production continues as usual, the Interior Department will work on important updates that, if done right, will result in a fairer process that better reflects the value of public lands to the public that owns them.
In truth, oil and gas production on Montana’s federal lands has been “sputtering,” with total revenue for oil and gas leases coming in at $21.21 million in 2019, as recently reported by the Billings Gazette. For comparison, our oil-rich neighbors in North Dakota and Wyoming collected revenues of nearly $277 million and $648 million, respectively.
For further comparison, Montana’s outdoor economy is a still-growing powerhouse, generating more than $7 billion in consumer spending each year and supporting more than 70,000 jobs.
Even though the oil and gas potential in Montana isn’t much, the Bureau of Land Management sells off leases for as little as $1.50 an acre for the first five years, and just $2 per acre every year after. The noncompetitive process is especially difficult to track, being several decades old and lacking in basic transparency — one of the reasons why the program is included on the Government Accountability Office’s high risk list.
A majority — 64% of Montanans who responded to Colorado College’s 11th annual State of the Rockies Project Conservation in the West Poll — support making public lands a net-zero source of carbon pollution. The same number said they would prefer their member of Congress emphasize conservation and recreation on public lands over maximizing the amount of land available for responsible energy development. And even more — 70% — said that oil and gas development on national public lands should be stopped or strictly limited, as opposed to expanded.
That's far too many Montanans to be considered "radical."
Haaland will likely bring a fair hand to the review process. She does, after all, hail from a state where oil and gas industries contribute $2.8 billion to the state budget, according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
The association’s president, by the way, doesn’t seem to think Haaland’s views are too “radical.” Following her testimony in Congress, Ryan Flynn said he thinks she’s done “a great job.”
“I'm very encouraged by the balanced approach she's taking,” Flynn said. “She's obviously looking at these issues from a much more balanced perspective and I was very encouraged by her testimony.”
Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department’s priorities were tipped too heavily in favor of extractive industries. Haaland’s more balanced approach will be a welcome change in the department — and in Montana.
This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.