Some Interior Department officials apparently weren't listening when Secretary James G. Watt promised not to issue oil and gas leases in wilderness areas before Congress adjourns.
Despite Watt's agreement with Congress, Interior's Bureau of Land Management issued two leases in May in the Wombar Creek wilderness of South Carolina's Francis Marion National Forest.
The matter came to light yesterday when Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), of the House Interior Committee, received a letter from Watt explaining that the leases had been issued "counter to my agreement with Congress." Watt indicated that he was not aware until last week that his subordinates had issued the leases, which cover 3,800 acres of forest land, including 295 acres designated by Congress as wilderness.
Watt did not cancel the leases. Instead he said he had persuaded the leaseholder -- an independent oilman -- not to exercise them in the wilderness areas without further clearance from Interior.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said yesterday he had "firm assurances that the action by the Interior Department was an oversight and that there will be no drilling" in his state's wilderness areas.
Seiberling, co-sponsor of a House bill that would ban oil and gas leasing in wilderness areas, said yesterday that he does not consider the matter resolved. He and national environmental groups said Watt should nullify the wilderness portion of the leases -- an approach used to resolve a controversy over El Capitan Wilderness leases issued last year in New Mexico, they said.
"This demonstrates the shakiness of relying on the secretary's voluntary moratorium and confirms the fears we have had all along about the leasing process," Seiberling said. "Why did it take 3 1/2 months for the secretary to discover these leases were issued by his own department in violation of his own orders?"
Watt agreed last November to put a six-month moratorium on leasing in wilderness areas. He later extended the ban to the end of this congressional session, in response to opposition from across the political spectrum.