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Senator to Block Interior Nomination over Disputed Leases

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last Wednesday voted out (17-5) to the full Senate the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, but Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) signaled that he intends to place a "hold" on the nomination. This would prevent the Senate from confirming Hayes until the issues related to disputed Utah oil and natural gas leases are resolved to Bennett's satisfaction.

Bennett said he planned to block Hayes' nomination after receiving what he called inadequate responses to questions about the Utah oil and gas leases, which the Obama administration withdrew in February. "There was no reason why [Interior Secretary Ken Salazar] should have canceled those leases [in Utah] and I need to understand why he did. The reasons that I have been given so far simply don't cut it. I don't think I'm getting straight answers, and until I do, I cannot vote to move this nomination forward."

Bennett said most of Hayes' responses to his questions were "non-responsive," while other were "simply not true." Hayes said Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was not required to consult with the National Park Service (NPS) on the Utah lease sale held in December, and added that no such consultation between the two agencies took place, according to Bennett.

"How can the BLM issue a press release on Nov. 25, 2008 applauding its collaboration and consultation with the National Park Service and then, less than four months later, the department denies there was any such coordination? There are just too many inconsistencies in the department's story about these leases," the senator said.

"I frankly am not surprised [by Bennett's action]. I know that there had been some contention from Sen. Bennett with respect to the Utah lease sales, which I stopped. And I stopped them frankly because I felt the last administration in some of its decisions was rushing headlong into development and into locking in resources in a manner that was not good for the country over the long term," Salazar said last Wednesday during a briefing with reporters.

The Utah lease sale drew fire from the NPS in Denver for BLM's apparent failure to give NPS adequate advance notice to evaluate the potential environmental impact of a proposed lease sale (see NGI, Nov. 17, 2008). The two Interior agencies eventually smoothed over their differences, with the BLM Utah State Director Selma Sierra agreeing to defer from the sale all parcels that continued to be a concern to NPS.

In early February Salazar overturned the results of the December Utah lease sale, directing BLM not to accept bids on 77 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon (see NGI, Feb. 9). Producers bid about $6 million on the 77 parcels that were auctioned off during the BLM sale on Dec. 19.

"We will take a good and hard look at those 77 lease parcels. Frankly some of them are located right next to some of the most beautiful landscape treasures for America and I'm going to protect those treasures. I think that's a distinction between ourselves and the prior administration, that we will find balance. We will allow development to occur, but we will also not hesitate to act when there are treasured places that need to be protected," Salazar said.

He said in February that the environmental review of the disputed parcels "was from our point of view not complete," and "I have concerns about the degree of consultation and the time of that consultation with the National Park Service" with respect to the December auction. "There are other important factors that should have been considered in that review, including the factors of air quality and impact of development on air quality in the vicinity of the parks. These are real issues and the U.S. District Court has agreed these are real issues."

The day following the Utah auction, a federal judge in Washington, DC granted a temporary restraining order to seven environmental groups. He ruled that Interior had not completed a sufficient environmental analysis, particularly on how air quality around Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument might become degraded because of drilling.

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