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Interior defends public land actions labeled as political moves

The House passed bills seeking to undo canceled oil leases and an improved standing for 'conservation' uses

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said recent actions amounted to “sanctioning” Alaska.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said recent actions amounted to “sanctioning” Alaska. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Interior Department is facing tough critiques of its federal land policies and accusations of playing election year politics as it pushes stricter protections for U.S. lands and waters.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is set to return to the Hill on Wednesday to testify to the Senate Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee on the department’s fiscal 2025 budget request. Appearing before both Senate and House committees last week, Haaland faced few questions about next year’s appropriations.

Instead, much of her time was spent defending the administration’s recent land policy announcements. These include a Bureau of Land Management rule that the administration said puts conservation on equal footing with other uses such as grazing, logging and oil and gas drilling, as well as a decision to restrict oil and natural gas leases in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Members of natural resources committees in both chambers accused Haaland and the Biden administration of attempting to appease environmental organizations that have pressed for swifter action on climate, and renewed their charges that the administration would rather rely on foreign-produced fossil fuels and minerals.

“Getting this administration to celebrate the abundant resources our country has been blessed with, whether that be oil, gas, coal or minerals, that we can produce cleaner and safer than anywhere else in the world and that we and our friends around the world rely on should be an easy lift,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the petroleum reserve decision and other recent actions amounted to “sanctioning” Alaska and “reduced Alaska to nothing more than a debit card to pay off national environmental groups in an election year.” She also urged Haaland to “clean house” at the Bureau of Land Management.

And House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the BLM’s conservation rule is “a danger to the land America relies on to feed and fuel our economy and a blatant disregard for input.” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the rule was “in contravention of the law” and expected it to end up in litigation.

The frustrations led the House to pass a series of public lands bills last week that attempt to reverse Biden administration actions. A bill to rescind the conservation use rule passed 212-202 largely along party lines, with three Democrats voting “yes” and only one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting “no.”

The House also passed a bill 214-199 that would reverse the cancellation of oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and block the actions in the Alaskan reserve.

Five Democrats voted “yes” on this bill, although Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, voted “present.” Peltola, who co-sponsored the bill and said she still supported its intent, expressed concerns that one provision to nullify a climate designation for a portion of the Bering Sea would adversely impact neighboring communities.

Despite strong opposition from congressional Republicans and some Democrats, the Biden administration has maintained its conservation goals, including the goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

On May 2, the White House announced the administration would use the Antiquities Act for the 10th time to expand two California sites: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument near Los Angeles and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument north of Sacramento. Both of these sites were originally designated under President Barack Obama.

The move was celebrated by environmentalists, some of whom encouraged the administration to designate additional national monuments as congressional action on a number of proposals have stalled.

However, the administration’s use of the Antiquities Act has also drawn pushback from Republicans who argue President Joe Biden has overstepped his authority.

“Each time his administration makes an announcement to lock up more of our federal lands it comes without local input or support,” Westerman said in a statement. 

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