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."
Salazar refused to say yesterday under what circumstances the administration would pursue offshore drilling, which was largely restricted until Bush and Congress lifted two moratoriums last year. The Interior Department estimates that there are 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas yet to be tapped off U.S. coasts.
Sharon Buccino, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped challenge the recent Utah lease sales, said the decision to cancel them shows that the new administration will weigh the need for energy supplies against environmental concerns. She noted that the contested leases, if fully developed, would satisfy 0.02 percent of the nation's annual consumption of oil and 0.5 percent of its natural gas usage.
"What's significant here is you really do have Salazar taking a very critical first step toward restoring some sort of balance to the management of public lands," Buccino said. "We can have energy security without sacrificing the West's wild places."
Just before Bush left office last month, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a restraining order on the Utah lease sales, postponing the final transactions until he could hear arguments on the merits of the case. Since the transactions had not become final, Interior could withdraw the leases.
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who grew up in Colorado across the border from southeastern Utah and opposed the leasing, said drilling proponents do not understand the value of limiting industrial activities near where "you can stand on a millions-of-years-old sandstone outcropping and see forever, it seems, and not hear a sound. That experience is very rare in this world."
Yesterday's decision did not resolve another controversy surrounding the Dec. 19 lease sale: U.S. Attorney Brett L. Tolman is still considering whether to press charges against University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher, who bid $1.8 million and won 13 of the leases even though he never intended to pay for them.
"The decision to withdraw the leases does not wipe the slate clean," Tolman said in a statement.