While the Interior Department is "fast-tracking" renewable energy projects, many of which are financed by the oil and natural gas industry, it has blinders on when it comes to promoting domestic oil and gas production, the American Petroleum Institute (API) said last Wednesday.

"Our concern...is that despite continued promise to promote increased domestic oil and natural gas production to meet the nation's increasing demand for all forms of energy, government action that would accomplish that gets no fast-track treatment. In fact, when it comes to new oil and gas development, the administration's policy appears to be one of extreme caution, often leading to delay," API President Jack Gerard told Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a letter.

"Perhaps the most recent glaring example involves the slowness of the department in developing a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) for Atlantic offshore development. Without that document -- which Congress has now directed MMS [Minerals Management Service] to conduct -- there can be no seismic testing, which is indispensable to the information-gathering that the department has deemed essential to successful planning and future leasing.

"Although we understand that an EIS may finally be authorized in the near future, we still must wonder why it has taken almost a year since MMS announced it would prepare this document," Gerard said.

"Other examples include decisions to delay or defer lease sales in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming and a six-month delay in the next (2010-2015) OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] five-year lease plan. Despite overwhelmingly pro-development comments that we understand were submitted to MMS, we continue to see no movement on this [OCS] plan," he noted (see NGI, Feb. 16; Feb. 9).

"We also see a lack of action on the Virginia lease sale, which is estimated to have a potential benefit of $340 million under the current five-year [OCS] plan. We are continuously being told that MMS needs more information, but little or nothing is done to gather the needed information," Gerard said (see NGI, Nov. 17, 2008).

"We applaud your move to fast-track alternative energy projects, and we would ask that you apply this same approach to actions needed to develop our primary domestic energy source -- oil and gas," he said. He reminded Salazar that oil and gas companies are one of the world's largest producers of renewable energy, including wind, geothermal and solar. More than one-fifth of all the U.S. investments in renewable energy between 2000 and 2008 came from oil and gas producers, according to API.

In a related development, a coalition of 89 House Democrats led by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) sent a letter to Salazar last Tuesday urging him to take administrative action to protect energy-rich Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in Utah from development while Congress continues to work on legislation to designate them as wilderness and off-limits to development.

"As Congress debates the best means of preserving Utah's unprotected wilderness, these lands remain at risk. We respectfully request that you exercise the considerable authority granted to the secretary of the Interior under existing laws to protect the wilderness qualities of these lands until Congress sees to their protection," the coalition wrote.

"Given the common belief that much of this land should be safeguarded, it makes sense for the Interior Department to step in and temporarily protect these lands while Congress and state officials sort out the best way to protect these precious acres for this and future generations of Americans to enjoy and admire," the lawmakers said.

"These are the very scenic lands that the previous [Republican] administration hoped to turn into off-road vehicle playgrounds and oil and gas fields. Implementing the recommendations we set forward in our letter will help restore balance while the legislative process moves forward."

Hinchey is the chief sponsor of the Red Rock Wilderness Act (HR 1925), which seeks to designate 9.4 million acres of energy-rich federal land in southern Utah as wilderness, thus barring oil and natural gas production, mining, road and dam construction, off-road vehicle use and other activities. The bill went before a House Natural Resources subcommittee in early October, but it hasn't been marked up by the full committee.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the bill in the Senate in April. It was referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but no action has been taken.

The legislation seeks wilderness designations for certain federal portions of the red rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin Deserts in Utah, including the Zion and Mojave Desert, the Grand Staircase-Escalante, Moab-La Sal Canyons, Henry Mountains, Glen Canyon, San Juan-Anasazi area, Canyonlands Basin, San Rafael Swell area, Book Cliffs and Uinta Basin.

While widely supported by environmentalists, the Hinchey legislation is opposed by the Utah state legislature. In early 2008 both the Utah Senate and House of Representatives passed a resolution urging Congress "not to enact federal legislation designating additional 'wilderness' on public lands within Utah without the unanimous support of Utah's congressional delegation."

"Oil and gas and mining resources are the roots of our economy in Utah. We cannot afford to let environmental elitists and New York politicians lock away these public lands from the Utah public," said state Sen. Mike Dmitrich, the chief sponsor of the bill in the Utah Senate, at the time (see NGI, March 3, 2008).

Hinchey has been trying to halt oil and gas activity on BLM land in Utah since early 2007 (see NGI, March 12, 2007).

Key Democrats in the coalition are Reps. Jim Moran of Virginia, Charles Rangel of New York, Lois Capps of California, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, George Miller of California, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Henry Waxman of California and Jay Inslee of Washington.

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