The federal energy two-step

Oil and gas companies are furious with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, but enviros wonder if he’ll go far enough

  • The BLM auctioned off leases for oil and gas drilling on these 77 Utah parcels last year, then suspended them in February. Now only 17 of the leases that lie north and west of Arches National Park have been approved for sale.

    Courtesy Skytruth and Googlemaps

What is the future of oil and gas development on federal land? That was the big question when Obama won the presidency after 16 years of the drill-happy Bush and Clinton administrations.

Day by day, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is answering.

Consider 77 controversial oil and gas leases on 100,000 acres in Utah, which companies bid for last December, during Bush's sunset. In February, Salazar rejected the winning bids, and in July, he sent an unusual 11-member team to Utah to scrutinize the leases on the ground. 

That team, led by San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, consisted of staffers from the National Park Service and other agencies, veterans who averaged more than 25 years of experience. Their October report found that many of the leases were in wilderness-quality areas, places with ancient rock art, special recreation and scenic areas, unusual sand dunes, or important habitat for wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Some of them were visible from national parks.

The team approved 17 of the leases for future sale but said that eight should be canceled and 52 "deferred indefinitely" until tuned to better protect the environment, among other reasons. The team also called for a new system for evaluating land for leasing, with more consideration of wildlife, air and water quality as well as noise and light pollution. And they recommended a leasing slowdown while reforms are devised.

Salazar embraced their recommen-dations and has committed to making "major reforms" in the leasing agency, the Bureau of Land Management.

Meanwhile, Salazar has twice scaled back Bush-era plans for oil shale leasing on millions of acres, and upped fees for processing leases and drilling permits. He plans to end one controversial oil and gas royalty program that has often shortchanged the government.

Salazar also vows to streamline development of cleaner energy, such as solar and wind, along with the related electrical grid. In addition to solar energy study zones in six Western states and special renewable energy permitting offices in four Western states, Salazar's Interior Department just announced that it will create an office for offshore renewable energy development in the Atlantic. And Salazar has restored endangered-species biologists' "consultation" role in evaluating oil and gas proposals -- a requirement that Bush eliminated.

Industry groups are complaining. The Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States issued 80-some pages of indictments of Salazar in November. About $100 million worth of leases have stalled in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, mostly due to challenges from Salazar and environmentalists, and many companies' investments have been "stranded." And Salazar is offering too few new leases, IPAMS says: Only a million acres of federal land have been leased to drillers this year, less than in any year of the Bush or Clinton administrations.

IPAMS is a respectable, if one-dimensional, group that touts the industry's high-paying jobs and tax payments that boost local economies. It pushes natural gas as a "bridge fuel" that burns cleaner than coal or oil while better alternatives are developed. But some of IPAMS' claims -- that the economic meltdown is not a factor in the idling of drill rigs and that drilling has few environmental impacts -- are ludicrous.

IPAMS insists that oil and gas development occurs on less than one-tenth of 1 percent of federal land (about 470,000 acres). "It's a small temporary disturbance," says Kathleen Sgamma, the group's director of government affairs. But that's just the area directly occupied by well pads, roads and other infrastructure. It doesn't include impacts like pollution, scenery degradation, noise and lights and indirect harm to wildlife. Salazar dismisses many of the charges as deceptive and "the poison (of) politics."

Meanwhile, some Democrats in Congress have sponsored bills for even more aggressive reforms, including higher royalties and more requirements for "best management practices." West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall wants to set up a new Office of Federal Energy and Minerals Leasing within Interior, to oversee all energy development including wind and solar, with new "regional planning councils" that would include many stakeholders.

That raises another question: Will Salazar go as far as some hope?

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