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Senator Seeks to Block Interior Nomination over Disputed Utah Leases

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday voted out (17-5) the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the Department of Interior to the full Senate for confirmation, 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. "I am incredibly disappointed in what appears to be political posturing by the department," he said. "The department has not only failed to address my concerns," but it has "also included information in their response that is simply not true."

Hayes, in his responses to the Utah senator, said the 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, and this nominee should not move forward until these concerns are addressed," 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," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said 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 Daily GPI, Nov. 11, 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 Daily GPI, Feb. 5). 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 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 21).

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