Salazar Voids Drilling Leases On Public Lands in Utah

Opponents said oil and gas drilling would have marred the Canyonlands and other sensitive areas in Utah.
Opponents said oil and gas drilling would have marred the Canyonlands and other sensitive areas in Utah. (Joby Warrick - Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 12:03 AM

In a clear signal that the Obama administration is shifting the government's approach to energy exploration on public lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday canceled oil and gas leases on 77 parcels of federal land after opponents said the drilling would blight Utah's scenic southeastern corner.

Salazar's decision -- which reverses the Bush administration's move to allow drilling on about 130,000 acres near pristine areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument -- is one of a series of steps that the new administration and congressional Democrats are planning to reshape federal regulation of drilling, mining, lumbering and other resource-tapping activities, both on U.S. soil and offshore.

Next week the House Natural Resources Committee will hold the first in a series of scheduled hearings on offshore oil drilling, the policies on which Salazar has said he intends to revamp in consultation with Congress. Salazar is also reviewing a rule easing commercial oil shale development; he must decide what federal parcels to offer in pending lease sales in the West; and he will have to decide in the coming months on land-management plans for areas in Colorado and Wyoming that contain valuable resources as well as imperiled species and wilderness habitat.

On Tuesday, Salazar pulled eight parcels from an imminent lease sale in Wyoming after Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) asked for a more detailed review.

"The policy positions of the department over the last eight years have really been driven out of the White House, and we're looking at many of those decisions," Salazar said in a telephone call with reporters yesterday.

"I believe, as President Obama does, that we need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way."

Salazar said his staff will review the 77 Utah leases, valued at a total of $6 million, and might offer some at auction if staffers can determine that they would not threaten air quality or other aspects of nearby protected areas.

Environmentalists and congressional Democrats praised the change in direction, but oil and gas industry officials warned that it could hamper the nation's ability to develop domestic energy supplies in the decades to come.

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said natural gas producers in Utah and the intermountain West produce more than a quarter of the country's natural gas on less than 1 percent of its public land.

"We wonder why the administration is implementing policies that will limit economic development in the West, decrease energy security and make addressing climate change even more difficult," Sgamma said. "These lands, where vast amounts of domestic, clean energy are found, are crucial to meeting the president's energy goals of increasing energy security and tackling climate change."

Under President George W. Bush, federal officials promoted drilling in the intermountain West, in Alaska and off both coasts to boost the nation's energy supply, awarding nearly three times as many oil and gas permits on federal land during the past four fiscal years compared with the corresponding period under former President Bill Clinton, according to a Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Land Management records.

The impending shift in energy-development policies is bound to be contentious. Yesterday, a group of House Republicans led by Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) urged Salazar to approve an offshore drilling plan drafted by Bush that would authorize 31 oil and gas lease sales between 2010 and 2015 in the Pacific and the Atlantic, saying "it is vital to our economy."

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