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Trump stacked his Cabinet with climate skeptics. Now Republicans are piling on Biden’s climate activist nominee

President Joe Biden nominated the most diverse Cabinet in history, but the Senate, which gets to offer “advice and consent,” is suddenly full of members — mostly Republicans — who are critical of partisan tweets and are carefully scrutinizing nominees’ job qualifications.

The attention has chiefly fallen on three domestic policy roles:

  • Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden has written a lot of mean tweets about conservatives and progressives and clashed with Bernie Sanders’ future presidential campaign manager. She’d be the first woman of color in charge of the executive budget.
  • Department of Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra played important roles defending the Affordable Care Act from the Trump administration’s efforts to get it declared unconstitutional and in California’s pandemic response. He’d be the first Latino to run HHS.
  • Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland has supported the Green New Deal and wants to end fracking on public land. She’d be the first Native American Cabinet secretary.

The difficulty faced by Haaland is particularly interesting since it’s not just political — opposition or support for a fossil fuel economy — but also scientific. One party wants to actively address climate change and the other does not.

What Matters went to CNN’s Drew Kann, who covers climate change for the network, to find out more about how energy policy intersects with climate science and where Haaland fits into that equation.

What is fracking and why is it controversial?

WHAT MATTERS: One criticism of Haaland is that as a lawmaker, and unlike President Biden, she supports a ban on fracking on federal land. That’s pretty much the opposite of the Trump administration, which worked hard to expand fracking on public land. Why are fracking in general and fracking on public land in particular such key issues? Is it a scientific or political dispute?

KANN: Through a purely scientific lens, the link between fracking and climate change is fairly simple. Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — is a process of extracting oil and gas by blasting liquids deep underground into rock formations to unlock fossil fuel reserves hidden inside.

When we burn that oil and gas in our cars and trucks and power plants, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the more carbon dioxide (CO2) that we put in the atmosphere, the thicker the blanket of greenhouse gases around the globe gets, and the hotter the planet gets as well.

Fracking doesn’t just add more CO2 to the equation. Oil and gas drilling also releases huge amounts of methane — another greenhouse gas that isn’t as abundant in the atmosphere as CO2, but has the potential to trap more than 25 times more heat and is already causing around 25% of the warming we feel today.

While burning fossil fuels isn’t the only reason that Earth is heating up, it is the biggest cause of global warming. And nearly all scientists agree that to stop the worst effects of global warming, we need to stop burning oil and gas — and fast.

But figuring out how — or whether — we stop burning oil and gas is where this gets political.

What is the public lands piece of this?

WHAT MATTERS: Where does most fracking occur and why is it so important to some lawmakers?

KANN: While most drilling in the US occurs on private and state lands, about 9% of both the oil and gas produced onshore is extracted from federal lands. In 2019, land leasing to oil and gas companies through the Department of the Interior brought in $4.2 billion in revenue for the federal government.

That’s a nice chunk of revenue, but what’s even more important to some politicians are the jobs that those fracking leases are connected to. There is little debate that a shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables will come at the expense of fossil fuel extraction jobs. But the Biden administration has argued that moving the US towards a net-zero emissions economy will ultimately create more better-paying jobs than the ones that are lost along the way.

This jobs argument is at the center of the Biden administration’s climate pitch. And it is also central to the Republican opposition to Haaland’s nomination, and explains why fracking has become such a political football.

Undoing Trump’s policy

WHAT MATTERS: A large portion of the Biden energy policy is undoing President Donald Trump’s energy policy, which was to expand drilling and increase oil and gas production and exports. Is this back-and-forth just going to continue with administrations in the future?

KANN: US climate policy over the last few years has certainly been whiplash-inducing. President Trump spent most of his four years in office gutting Obama-era climate change regulations, and now President Biden’s task will be to roll back the rollbacks.

President Biden has already issued a number of executive orders aimed at reversing Trump’s policies. He rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office and soon after temporarily halted new oil and gas leases on public lands.

But experts say crafting climate policy that can last long after Biden is out of the White House will be one of his biggest challenges. One of the problems with executive actions and even agency rule-making through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior is that many of those rules can be challenged and eventually undone by future administrations.

And with a razor-thin Democratic Senate majority, Biden will face a tall task to pass climate legislation that can endure after he is out of office.

WHAT MATTERS: If confirmed, how large a role exactly could Haaland play in furthering Biden’s climate agenda?

KANN: Michael Regan, Biden’s nominee to lead the EPA, will be at the tip of the spear when it comes to rebuilding the climate and environmental guardrails that were dismantled under Trump. But the Department of the Interior will also play a huge role in the Biden administration’s all-of-government approach to tackling climate change.

Interior manages more than 413 million acres of federal lands, as well as millions more acres held in trust for Native American tribes. What happens on that land — whether it is leased out for fossil fuel exploration or protected — will have a huge impact on the lives of Americans today, as well as future generations.

Haaland’s confirmation would also be historic because of her heritage — she is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, one of the 574 Native American tribes recognized by the US government. And given the federal government’s long history of mistreatment and injustice toward Native Americans, having Haaland in charge of all federal lands as the country’s first Native American cabinet member would be rich in symbolism.

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