In an emergency session marked by bitter partisan exchanges, a House public lands subcommittee received conflicting testimony yesterday on whether the Interior Department last month gave a New Mexico oil company tacit approval to ignore a congressional ban and drill for gas in a wilderness area, as environmentalists have charged.
Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, N.M., U.S. District Court Judge Juan C. Burciaga granted a temporary restraining order halting exploratory drilling in the wilderness area at the request of Assistant U.S. Attorney L.D. Harris, according to the Associated Press. A memorandum with the request said the drilling would cause "irreparable injury" to the area.
Burciaga scheduled a hearing for Friday on the order, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made preparations for an emergency shutdown of the wilderness area at 9 this morning.
At yesterday's subcommitee hearing, Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), chairman of the panel and a leading environmentalist, said the Interior Department's handling of the incident raised "disturbing questions about the willingness of the administration to move with the necessary speed and will to enforce the laws."
He contended that the department's assistant solicitor sent the company a "muddled" letter last month that could be read as encouragement to proceed with drilling plans without the needed permits. And he said he found it "astounding" that the government was taking more than a week to seek a court injunction after the drilling began.
Seiberling also was angered by the refusal of Assistant Interior Secretary Garrey E. Carruthers to testify yesterday. Some environmentalists have alleged that Carruthers gave Yates tacit signals to proceed, in defiance of a rider to an Oct. 2 continuing-appropriations resolution that prohibited the expenditure of Interior Department funds to process permits or leases pertaining to drilling in wilderness areas.
"It was a classic stonewall," Tim Mahoney of the Sierra Club said of Carruthers' absence. "The administration didn't send down the witnesses who could answer the question."
The administration did have its defenders at the hearing, however. The most animated was Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who dismissed the entire event as a "dog and pony show" cooked up by environmentalists "so you can raise money." Referring to the controversial secretary of the interior, Young added that "the crucifixion of James Watt is uncalled for," and said the government acted properly throughout.
Since 1972, the Yates company has had a mineral exploration lease with the state of New Mexico, which owns the subsurface of the Salt Creek Wilderness. The lease would have expired Nov. 1 unless the company showed "due diligence" in drilling for oil or gas.
Even though the area is designated a federal wilderness, Yates had a valid right to drill and New Mexico had a valid right to allow it to drill, Robert A. Jantzen, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the panel yesterday.
The Interior Department was planning to issue the needed land-use and access permits to facilitate the drilling when Congress, on Oct. 2, passed the continuing appropriations ban on issuing such permits, according to Jantzen. That created a "Catch-22," he said, in which the department could not respond to what it considered a valid permit request.
U.S. marshals were en route to the drilling site last night to serve oil company officials with Judge Burciaga's order, which prohibits further drilling but allows Yates to keep minimum personnel at the site pending a hearing, AP reported.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the site would be closed to the public, protesters and "everybody except for Yates' minimum crew and Fish and Wildlife people."