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US House panel investigates ties between US Interior secretary, environmentalists

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Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources are raising concerns about ties between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and an Indigenous group from her home state that advocates for halting oil and gas production on public lands.

The members on Monday sent a letter to Haaland requesting documents related to her interactions with Pueblo Action Alliance as well as those of her daughter, Somah, who has worked with the group and has rallied against fossil fuel development.

The request comes just days after Haaland decided to withdraw hundreds of square miles in New Mexico from oil and gas production for the next 20 years on the outskirts of Chaco Culture National Historical Park — an area considered sacred by some Native American communities.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, the Arkansas Republican who chairs the committee, said Congress has a duty to oversee federal agencies and the cabinet secretaries who lead them and that what he called Haaland’s “alliances” present potential conflicts of interest.

“The committee is calling on Secretary Haaland to shed light on these ties between her family and this extremist group, so we can determine the potentially unethical way these types of decisions are being made throughout the federal bureaucracy,” Westerman said in a statement.

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The Interior Department had no comment on the letter, agency spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said.

Haaland — who is from the Laguna Pueblo and is the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency — has said the work to protect land around Chaco has been ongoing for decades and that numerous public meetings and consultations with tribal leaders were a part of the process.

Julia Bernal, executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance, called the Chaco decision a compromise because the group has been pushing for more expansive protections.

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The Republican House committee has raised concerns over Interior Secretary Haaland’s ties to an Indigenous group that advocates to halt to oil and gas production.

“The Alliance has urged the Biden administration to protect ancestral lands and address the climate emergency by phasing out fossil fuel extraction on public lands,” Bernal told The Associated Press in an email. “Chairman Westerman’s allegations are a misguided attempt to deflect attention from the fossil fuel industry’s role in the climate crisis and the destruction of ancestral lands.”

Industry groups have suggested that Pueblo Action Alliance, Somah Haaland and others have influenced Haaland, who as secretary oversees an agency that manages more than 380,000 square miles of public lands.

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The Western Energy Alliance says that Haaland and her senior officials have granted special access to Pueblo Action Alliance and its allies and have helped the group lobby members of Congress and the Interior Department on issues before the agency, including oil and gas leasing.

“Secretary Haaland has conflicts of interest that simply wouldn’t be tolerated if they were on behalf of oil and natural gas companies and should not be tolerated when they’re on behalf of environmental special interests,” Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said Monday.

Among the documents the House panel is requesting are copies of the ethical pledges signed by Haaland and any waivers that have been granted to her.

The request also calls for communications between the secretary and Somah Haaland related to oil and gas leasing on federal lands, Pueblo Action Alliance, efforts to lobby members of Congress or other government officials about withdrawing federal land from development and a protest at the agency’s headquarters in October 2021.

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