The House Interior Committee, backing away from a showdown with Interior Secretary James G. Watt, yesterday adopted a nonbinding resolution asking the the secretary to refrain from issuing oil and gas leases in wilderness areas until June 1.
The compromise resolution was drafted by committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Watt's, who said it would "buy time" for Congress to consider whether legislation is needed to further protect the nation's 80 million acres of wilderness areas.
A spokeman for Watt, who participated in bipartisan negotiations that produced the resolution, said yesterday the secretary would honor the moratorium.
The effect of the action is to delay for six months a confrontation between the House committee, which has consistently opposed any development in wilderness areas, and Watt, who has said such areas should not be closed to mineral exploration.
Udall said he was "shocked, disturbed and troubled" by a Watt memorandum leaked to the press this spring in which he urged the department's solicitor to "open wilderness areas" to oil and gas drilling. That policy, Udall said, represents a "breach of faith with the American people."
Nevertheless, Udall rejected a sweeping resolution, first proposed by the committee's ranking minority member, Manuel Lujan Jr. of New Mexico, and later picked up by Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), that would have declared a "state of emergency" in the entire wilderness system, thereby making it immediately off limits to development.
Udall described that as a "blunderbuss" approach that would break a commitment made to the nation's mining industry. Under the terms of the 1964 Wilderness Act, he noted, industry was given 20 years to "paw through" protected areas before they become off limits to new exploration leases.
The controversy involving wilderness leases flared this week after it was revealed that the Interior Department, without notifying the public or Congress, and without completing environmental studies, had issued three leases for oil and gas drilling in the El Capitan Wilderness in New Mexico.
It was widely reported--by the Department of Interior, among others--that those were the first leases issued in wilderness areas since the passage of the Wilderness Act. In fact, a Forest Service official disclosed yesterday that 20 such leases have been granted since 1964. In no case, however, has any actual drilling taken place in protected areas.
Watt has since promised Congrees he will give 30 days' warning before issuing leases in the future. The significance of the prenotification is that it would give the Congress an opportunity to thwart Watt by invoking its power under the 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act to declare a state of emergency in a wilderness area.
Yesterday, the committee nearly invoked that provision for all of the wilderness areas within the state of California, where a large number of oil and gas drilling applications are pending. But an amendment offered by Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) failed by 20 to 19 in committee.