Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, President Biden’s pick to head the Interior Department, sought Tuesday to find the line between her past remarks as an activist opposing the fossil fuel industry, and her prospective role at the helm of an agency that oversees drilling and conservation on the nation’s more than 500 million acres of public land.
In the first day of a two-part confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy Committee, Ms. Haaland’s most important audience was the panel’s chairman, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat who has often sided with Republicans on environmental policy as he seeks to protect his home state’s coal industry.
Privately, however, Democrats have warned Mr. Manchin against being seen as derailing the candidacy of Ms. Haaland, who, if confirmed, would make history as the first Native American cabinet secretary.
Mr. Manchin asked Ms. Haaland if she supports the idea of American energy independence, to which she said, “We want to move forward with innovation,” but added, “That’s not going to happen overnight. We will still rely on fossil fuel energy.”
Mr. Manchin replied, “I’m totally committed to innovation, not elimination.”
Ms. Haaland has previously called for a total ban on all fossil fuel exploration on public lands, and if confirmed, she would be charged with executing one of Mr. Biden’s most contentious policies — halting future hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas on public lands.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the energy committee’s ranking Republican, said that while her nomination deserved to be recognized for its historic nature, he was troubled by some of her views.
“If Representative Haaland intends to use the Department of the Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other western states, then I’m going to oppose the nomination,” Mr. Barrasso said.
Mr. Barrasso and other Republicans pressed Ms. Haaland about some of her past remarks, such as a 2019 interview in which she said, “I am wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.”
Ms. Haaland stressed that, if confirmed, she would enact Mr. Biden’s policies of pausing future fracking — rather than a full ban.
“If I’m confirmed as secretary, it’s President Biden’s agenda, not my own agenda, that I would be moving forward,” she said.
Ms. Haaland could win the votes of some Republicans. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, expressed concern about Mr. Biden’s moves to shut down drilling in her state. But she also celebrated Ms. Haaland’s historic nomination, and Ms. Haaland noted that she and Ms. Murkowski had worked together on a law to end violence against Native American women.
In an effort to emphasize her bipartisan bona fides, Ms. Haaland was introduced to the Senate committee by Ms. Murkowski’s fellow Alaska Republican, Representative Don Young.
“I have had her reach across the aisle to talk to me about Alaska. She’s bipartisan,” he said. Nonetheless, Mr. Young stressed that he disagrees with policies to end drilling.
“Anyone who thinks we’re going to call off fossil fuels immediately is smoking pot — that’s legal, by the way, in the state of Alaska.”