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Utah Senator Seeks to Block Interior Solicitor Nominee

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) Thursday placed a hold on the nomination of Hilary Tompkins for solicitor of the Department of Interior, saying he was frustrated with her responses to questions about the Utah Wilderness Settlement, which removed millions of acres in Utah from wilderness protection and opened them for potential development.

This marks the second Interior nomination that Bennett has sought to block. In March Bennett placed a hold on the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of Interior, saying he was dissatisfied with Hayes' response to his questions about disputed Utah oil and natural gas leases (see NGI, Feb. 9). The holds prevent the Senate from confirming Hayes and Tompkins until the issues are resolved.

"I need to better understand the legal opinions and direction of who will be the department's chief legal officer and the answers provided just don't cut it," he said during a mark-up session of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Bennett also has sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting that the administration respond to the questions originally submitted to the solicitor-designate about the department's current position on the 2003 Utah settlement and whether that position will change.

"As part of this anti-energy, anti-drilling movement, certain members of the environmental community are working to undermine the certainty we have in Utah and the West regarding wilderness study areas," Bennett said. "I need to understand whether Secretary Salazar is going to be a willing participant in such actions. I need specific information from the administration, not just promises to study the issue further. These groups who are anti-energy would like nothing more than to see this settlement go away, and I hope the secretary will not violate the agreement between the United States and the state of Utah."

He said the hold on Tompkins' nomination would remain in place until he is satisfied that he has an understanding of Interior's position on the wilderness agreement.

The April 2003 settlement, negotiated by former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, represented a sea change in federal policy toward wilderness creation and had implications for every state in the West, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2005. The new policy, embodied in the settlement, removed protection for 2.6 million acres in Utah and withheld interim safeguards traditionally applied to areas with wilderness potential.

In early 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit dismissed an appeal filed by environmental groups challenging the legality of the wilderness settlement between Utah and Interior.

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