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Interior's Focus Turns from Gas, Oil To Renewables

Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday issued a secretarial order making the production, development and delivery of renewable energy top priorities for DOI.

While DOI "will continue to responsibly develop oil and gas resources on public lands," the department's focus will turn toward renewable energy, Salazar said. The shift in priorities was made to help reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, build a clean energy economy and create new jobs, he said.

"The purpose of the executive order today is to send a loud and clear message across all of the agencies of the Department of Interior that we are in the renewable energy business," Salazar said. "The days where we were simply in the department handing out leases for oil and gas and other mineral extractions" will change under the new "expanded mission," he said.

"We're going to continue to work on the development of our conventional resources, but we're also opening the door to a new day," Salazar said.

The secretarial order also formally established an energy and climate task force assigned to spur the new, renewables-focused agenda, and to identify specific zones on U.S. public lands where DOI can facilitate a rapid and responsible move to large-scale production of solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy. According to Salazar, the task force actually began working on those issues Jan. 21 -- the first full working day of the Obama administration. Salazar said he will present some of the task force's initial findings to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Tuesday.

For the renewable energy zones to succeed, Interior will need to work closely with other federal agencies, states and American Indian tribes to determine what electric transmission infrastructure and transmission corridors are needed to deliver renewable resources to major population centers, Salazar said.

"We will assign a high priority to identifying renewable energy zones and completing the permitting and appropriate environmental review of transmission rights-of-way applications that are necessary to deliver renewable energy generation to consumers. We have to connect the sun of the deserts and the wind of the plains with the places where people live."

On Thursday Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said DOI was displaying an apparent bias against conventional natural gas and oil production and said the Obama administration's fiscal year 2010 budget amounted to a "war on domestic production."

"Punishing the domestic oil and gas industry will not bring on the age of renewable energy any faster," Murkowski said. "It will increase our dependence on foreign oil and further threaten our energy and economic security."

Obama's budget proposes to repeal the expensing of drilling costs ($3.34 billion over 10 years); repeal percentage depletion for oil and gas ($8.25 billion); repeal marginal well tax credit; repeal enhanced oil recovery credit; increase geological and geophysical amortization costs for independent producers to seven years ($1.18 billion); levy an excise tax on Gulf of Mexico production ($5.28 billion); and repeal the manufacturing tax deduction ($13.29 billion) (see NGI, March 2).

DOI's decision to establish renewable energy zones should be applied to natural gas and oil resources as well, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

"We agree with Secretary Salazar that our country needs to tap its plentiful domestic energy resources, including oil and natural gas," said API President Jack Gerard. "The oil and natural gas industry is one of the world's largest producers of renewable energy, including wind, geothermal and solar and have invested more in emerging energy technologies than the U.S. federal government and private sector combined.

"We are encouraged by Secretary Salazar's pledge that his department would facilitate 'a rapid and responsible move to large-scale production' of alternative energy, and we call on the department to apply this streamlined approach to the permitting process of the most important domestic energy source, oil and natural gas."

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