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U.S. Interior secretary unveils $125 million for local climate projects

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U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is seen during a 2021 visit to Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK

By Jacob Fischler DAILY MONTANAN

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Interior Department will send $125 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law to scores of local climate resiliency and conservation projects, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland told a group of environmental reporters Friday.

Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference, Haaland promoted several aspects of the Interior Department’s agenda, including programs receiving funds from the $1.9 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law and Democrats’ 2022 climate and spending law, both of which President Joe Biden signed.

Haaland called the spending in those laws “once-in-a-generation funding.”

“These investments have the potential to be transformational,” she said.

The funding announced Friday will support 240 projects throughout the country, she said. A full list of projects is available here.

The money is meant for several different priorities, including cleaning up legacy pollution funding, such as former mining sites and orphaned oil and gas wells, improving resiliency to wildfires and flooding and restoring biodiversity.

Interior will also send $35 million for 39 National Fish Passage Program projects in 22 states. The program, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, works to remove barriers such as dams and levees to create passages that allow fish to follow their natural migration patterns.

Separately, Haaland announced $140 million for Western water projects through the department’s Bureau of Reclamation. That funding also comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The money will go to 84 projects in 15 states, Haaland said. Those projects are expected to conserve 77 billion gallons of water, she said.

In addition to the funding announcement, Haaland also endorsed recent administration actions related to environmental justice and public lands.

The United States faces several environmental crises related to climate change, Haaland said. The rising sea levels, worsening fires and other impacts of climate change are felt most acutely by disadvantaged “people at the margins,” Haaland said.

The Biden administration is committed to environmental justice to address those inequities, Haaland said.

Biden on Friday signed an executive order creating an Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican, criticized the order in a statement, saying the administration should instead focus on lowering energy costs.

“Studies, scorecards and new offices filled with bureaucrats aren’t going to do anything to improve the environment,” he said.

Haaland also praised a draft rule the Bureau of Land Management released last month to promote conservation as a core function of federal lands. The rule is meant to put conservation on an equal footing with extractive industries such as mining and energy development, she said.

And Haaland promoted her own 2021 order to remove a derogatory term for Native American women from official place names.

Permitting reform

In an earlier appearance at the conference Friday, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning called on Congress to approve Biden’s budget request, which includes funding increases for agencies that grant environmental permits for energy and infrastructure projects.

That additional funding would help speed approvals of renewable energy and transmission projects more effectively than reforming laws like the National Environmental Policy Act that govern how the federal government processes permits to build energy and infrastructure projects, she said.

“From where I sit, NEPA and permitting is not the biggest problem,” Stone-Manning said. “The biggest problem is having enough people to do the work.”

Haaland has often been the target of Republican calls for the administration to open more oil and gas development, while also receiving criticism from climate activists who want the administration to end fossil fuel development on public lands and waters.

Asked about that balance Friday, Haaland said the department was bound by federal law that required holding oil and gas lease sales but was also prioritizing renewable energy projects.

Haaland declined to answer a question about her personal feelings on a recent decision to allow oil drilling in Alaska.

Earlier Friday, Haaland and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Martha Williams also made an appearance in Nampa, Idaho, to announce $1 million for the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge under the agency’s Urban Wildlife Conservation program.

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