New Mexico's Deb Haaland emerges as Biden's top choice to lead U.S. Interior -sources

WILMINGTON, Del./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico appears to be President-elect Joe Biden’s top choice to head the Interior Department, three informed sources said, a pick that would make her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) questions Major Adam DeMarco of the District of Columbia National Guard as he testifies about the June 1 confrontation with protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 28, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool

The position would give her authority over a department that employs more than 70,000 people across the United States and oversees more than 20% of the nation’s surface, including tribal lands and national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

She has told Reuters she would seek to usher in an expansion of renewable energy production on federal land to contribute to the fight against climate change, and undo President Donald Trump’s focus on bolstering fossil fuels output.

Two of the sources familiar with the proceedings said Biden’s team was close to finalizing the decision on Haaland but weighing concerns about the loss of a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats are hanging on to a slim majority. The third source said the decision was made and that an announcement was imminent.

Biden is also in the process of finalizing other key energy and environment picks, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator and Secretary of Energy - all of which will be crucial to his sweeping climate change agenda.

Two sources said Biden currently favors Jennifer Granholm to run the Department of Energy. Granholm, 61, was Michigan’s first female governor and pushed for a transition to green technologies in the longtime car-manufacturing state.

Progressive activists and tribal leaders waged a pressure campaign over the past few weeks for Biden to select Haaland for Interior, sending letters to the Biden transition team and launching a #DebforInterior campaign on social media.

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, has said she believes the fact that she was being considered for the Interior post was good news for Native American areas.

“I’m glad our country’s progressed to a place where an idea like this is a consideration,” she said.

The Trump administration had used the Interior Department as a key tool in its “energy dominance” agenda, which prioritized deregulation and fastracking of fossil fuel projects to maximize domestic oil, gas, and coal output.

About a fifth of U.S. oil production comes from federal leases.

Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Valerie Volcovici with additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Howard Goller and Mark Heinrich