The New Mexico Democrat is the last serving member of a political dynasty that has represented the West in Washington for nearly seven decades. He has urged a shift in land and ocean management away from oil and gas production to tackling climate change and preserving wilderness.
His plan calls for conservation of 30% of the country’s lands and ocean waters in the next 10 years, setting aside millions of acres for recreation, wildlife and climate efforts by 2030. Biden has pledged to sign an executive order on his first day to support the plan as part of his $2 trillion program to slow global warming.
Not surprisingly, Udall, a longtime friend of Biden and a former aide, has emerged as a leading contender to be Biden’s interior secretary. If chosen, Udall would follow in the footsteps of his late father, Stewart, a former congressman who led the Interior Department under two Democratic presidents in the 1960s.
Tom Udall is among several New Mexico Democrats being considered for the Cabinet department that manages America’s vast public lands and coastal waters, and works with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes. Others include Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Deb Haaland, who would be the first Native American to lead the agency, in an incoming administration that has pledged to make diversity a focus.
Kevin Washburn, a former assistant interior secretary and member of the Chickasaw tribe, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are among others mentioned.
Udall, 72, worked for Biden in the early 1970s and says the election of his political mentor means efforts to address climate change, and promote conservation and environmental justice are back on track after years of neglect under President Donald Trump.
“I don’t think our planet could have survived another four years of Trump,” Udall said in an interview covering his and his family’s conservation legacy. He spoke of what he called the “plunder” of public lands by the Trump administration, and plans by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to slow the climate crisis.
The idea behind Udall’s plan is to dedicate forests, grasslands and other undeveloped sites as natural “carbon sinks” to help absorb the climate-damaging gases produced from burning fossil fuels.
“What Joe and Kamala understand is we can’t just undo the damage of the last four years. That would be like putting a Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound,” Udall said.
No matter who is selected as interior secretary, the new administration is expected to pivot the 70,000-employee agency to focus on conservation and climate change in place of the current administration’s headlong rush for oil and gas leases.
The Trump administration eliminated dozens of regulations, and eased permitting for drilling, mining and other extractive industries as it promoted U.S. “energy dominance” as the world’s top oil and gas producer. A fracking boom that surged when Biden was vice president and then embraced by Trump fueled the growth in energy production.
Oil and gas production on public lands managed by the department and other federal agencies topped a record 1 billion barrels last year, as the Trump administration dismissed scientific warnings on global warming, and moved to open more public land and water to development. Biden said he wants to ban new permits for drilling on public land and restore limits Trump moved to knock down for methane emissions produced by drilling.
Oil and gas extracted from public lands accounts for as much as one-fourth of U.S. carbon emissions. Udall said the Biden plan would make public lands “carbon neutral” by 2030, meaning the land would absorb as much carbon dioxide as they emit from energy production.
Udall’s focus on carbon dioxide is nothing new. Under his father’s leadership, the Interior Department issued a report warning of the dangers of rising carbon dioxide levels in 1965.
A focus on conservation is a family legacy, Udall said. “That’s in my DNA from being Stewart Udall’s son.”
Udall also is the nephew of the late Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., and cousin of ex-Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. The family was so prominent in Western politics that, for many years, the rallying cry among supporters was “Vote for the Udall nearest you.”
“I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family where public service was considered the highest calling,” Tom Udall said.
“The thing about Stewart and Mo is that both had a rare combination of moral courage and political decency,” he said, citing his father’s efforts to stand up for Rachel Carson, an early environmental leader, and force integration of the then-Washington Redskins football team, which leased its stadium from the Interior Department.
Stewart and Mo Udall, a onetime presidential candidate, played key roles in the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the mid-1960s, and Tom Udall counts among his proudest accomplishments a law signed by Trump that provides permanent funding for the much-praised program.
The funding was included in a bill that allocated nearly $3 billion to conservation projects, outdoor recreation, and maintenance of national parks and other public lands. The bipartisan measure is widely seen as the most significant conservation legislation enacted in decades.
The overwhelming support for the bill shows that “good politics ends up being good policy” and that bipartisanship is possible on the environment, Udall said. Both parties also backed a 2016 law that overhauled regulation of dangerous chemicals, an achievement Udall says was one of his most satisfying in 22 years in Congress, including two terms in the Senate.
Similar achievements are possible in the next Congress, despite increased polarization, Udall said. “You can call me overly optimistic, but I’m certainly not going to concede that the Biden agenda can’t get through” a divided Congress, he said.
As the effects of climate change continue to worsen, “Congress will increasingly feel pressure from the public to get things done,” Udall said.