(Bloomberg) — Retiring Senator Tom Udall is leading a short list of candidates to run the Interior Department if Joe Biden wins the presidency next month — a role that would put him to work in a building named for his father.
Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, is a top contender to be Biden’s secretary of the Interior and would consider the role if asked, according to people familiar with the matter who sought anonymity to discuss the personnel search.
Senator Tom Udall
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
“It’s hard to find someone who’s been a bigger champion of public lands than Tom Udall, whether you’re talking about in his state, New Mexico, or nationwide, advocating for the Arctic refuge and fighting climate change,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s land protection program. “It’s in his genes.”
Representative Deb Haaland, another Democrat from New Mexico, and Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who leads the House Natural Resources Committee, also have won praise from environmental groups and been recommended to head the Interior Department.
The agency acts as the nation’s landlord, overseeing grazing, recreation, energy development and other activities on about a fifth of the U.S. The department also is in charge of the national park system and regulates energy development in coastal waters, including offshore wind farms and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tom Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, was Interior secretary from 1961 to 1969 and is credited with a major expansion in federal land protection, including the creation of dozens of wildlife refuges, national parks and recreation areas. He died in 2010, and the agency’s headquarters building in Washington was named for him three months later.
Under President Donald Trump, the Interior Department has encouraged mining and drilling for oil and gas on federal real estate, while creating new hunting and fishing opportunities at wildlife refuges and hatcheries. Under Biden, the department would take a sharp left turn, pivoting to focus aggressively on conservation while clamping down on drilling.
“If we’re going to save the human species and save animal species, we need to take dramatic action,” Udall said Monday, during an online event environmental groups organized to celebrate the lawmaker’s legacy.
Udall spokesman Ned Adriance declined to answer questions about the senator’s potential role as Interior secretary. “Right now, Senator Udall is focused on a strong finish to his Senate term, and he’s also working hard to help the Biden-Harris ticket win New Mexico, win the West and win the election,” Adriance said.
Udall has laid out plans to enlist federal lands in the fight against climate change — transforming the territory into uninterrupted habitat for vulnerable species and a sponge for carbon dioxide instead of a prime U.S. source of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning them.
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It’s a prospect that terrifies the oil and gas industry, which is running TV ads in battleground states warning of lost jobs and revenue if Biden makes good on vows to block new drilling and fracking on federal lands. Udall’s home state of New Mexico is near the epicenter of the fight — with burgeoning oil production that once paid for a free-college program and now provides roughly 39% of the state’s budget.
That hasn’t restrained Udall’s zeal for conservation on Capitol Hill, where he’s teamed up with Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, to advance a resolution setting a target of protecting at least 30% of U.S. land and ocean by 2030.
Udall has driven efforts to block drilling near the sandstone mesas and ruins of northwest New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region, helping secure a temporary 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
And he’s been a foil of the Trump administration, tangling with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt over plans to sell oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and filing a legal brief with Grijalva, Haaland and 49 other lawmakers opposing eased limits on methane leaks from oil wells on federal land.
Udall says his land protection push is rooted in his family legacy and deep connection to the American west.
“Conservation is in my DNA,” Udall said Monday. “We loved to be out in the wild places and see the wildlife, and making sure we were really moving forward to protect it. That’s the message that my dad passed on.”
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