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Salazar: Review of Utah Leases Hinges on Release of Senate Holds

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has signaled that he cannot revisit his decision to shelve 77 oil and natural gas leases near national parks in Utah until Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) releases his hold on agency nominees.

"He [Salazar] wants to do this as expeditiously as possible...He just doesn't have the staff who can review the leases" due to the Senate holds on Interior nominations, Interior spokeswoman Betsy Hildebrandt told NGI. "He needs to have staff in office," she said, "to make sure the proper level of [environmental] assessment can be done on the 77 leases." It's kind of a "Catch-22 situation."

In early February Salazar canceled leases to develop oil and gas on 130,000 acres of public lands in Utah. His action overturned the results of an oil and gas leases auction that was held in the final days of the Bush administration (see NGI, Feb. 9). Producers bid about $6 million on the 77 parcels that were auctioned off during a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sale in December. In withdrawing the Utah leases, Salazar said the environmental review of the disputed parcels "was from our point of view not complete."

Since then Republicans have been using one of the only means at their disposal -- placing holds on nominations -- to show their opposition to the Obama administration's actions on oil and gas. A hold prevents the Senate from confirming a nominee until the issue in dispute has been resolved.

Bennett has 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, March 23). The hold has been supported by Utah's other senator -- Orrin Hatch -- as well.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in late April added her name to the hold on Hayes following the Obama administration's decision to revoke a Bush-era regulation that allowed federal agencies to forgo "broad interagency consultations" with Interior agencies on matters related to the Endangered Species Act (see NGI, May 4a). Bennett also has placed a hold on the nomination of Hilary Tompkins for Interior solicitor (see NGI, May 4b).

In May 1 letter, Bennett asked Salazar to provide him with an update on the progress of Interior's review of the 77 Utah leases.

Salazar and Thomas Strickland, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, are the only two Interior officials who have been confirmed by the Senate so far. There currently are 10 Interior nominations pending before the Senate, including Hayes and Tompkins. The most recent Interior nomination was Wilma A. Lewis, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, to be assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management. The Obama administration has yet to appoint the directors of the Minerals Management Service and BLM, which do not require Senate confirmation.

Prior to Salazar's trip on May 1 to Utah last Hatch wrote a letter to the secretary, cautioning him about the "seven deadly sins" of public land management. "First, never underestimate the impact your decisions have on our nation's energy policy, security and competitive strength. Most of our nation's energy is stored up on public lands, and access to cheap energy is a central element of world power," he said.

"Second, never mess with our free market...When policymakers set up artificial barriers to domestic energy production -- such as withdrawing energy leases or withholding lease regulations -- they upset the market's ability to respond to future increases in demand.

"Third, never shut down an abundant and cheap energy source in favor of one that is limited and expensive...Your recent withdrawal of energy leases was an attack on some of Utah's best natural gas potential. To argue that these leases threatened our national parks suggests you have not looked at the maps or talked to your BLM land managers," Hatch said.

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