WASHINGTON – In a clear signal that the Obama administration is shifting the government’s approach to energy exploration on public lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday canceled oil and gas leases on 77 parcels of federal land that opponents said would blight Utah’s scenic southeastern corner.
Salazar’s decision – which reverses the Bush administration’s December move to allow drilling on about 130,000 acres near pristine areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument – is one of a series of steps that the administration and congressional Democrats are planning to take to reshape federal regulation of drilling, mining, lumbering and other resource tapping activities, both on American soil and offshore.
Next week the House Resources Committee is holding the first in a series of hearings on offshore oil drilling, a policy Salazar has said he intends to revamp in consultation with Congress. Salazar is also reviewing a rule easing commercial oil shale development, must decide what federal parcels to offer in pending lease sales in the West, and will have to decide in the coming months on land management plans for areas in Colorado and Wyoming that contain valuable resources as well as imperiled species and wilderness habitat.
On Tuesday Salazar pulled eight parcels from an imminent lease sale in Wyoming after Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, asked for a more detailed review.
“I believe, as President Obama does, that we need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way,” Salazar said in a telephone call with reporters Wednesday.
Salazar said his staff would review the 77 Utah leases, valued at a total of $6 million, and might choose to offer some of them at auction in the future if they determine that they do not threaten air quality and other wilderness aspects of nearby protected areas.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats praised the change in direction, but oil and gas industry officials warned it could hamper the nation’s ability to develop domestic energy supplies in the decades to come. Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said natural gas producers in Utah and the intermountain West produce more than a quarter of the country’s natural gas on less than 1 percent of its public land.
“We wonder why the administration is implementing polices that will limit economic development in the West, decrease energy security and make addressing climate change even more difficult,” Sgamma said.
Under Bush, federal officials promoted drilling in the intermountain West, in Alaska and off both coasts in order to boost the nation’s energy supply, awarding nearly three times as many oil and gas permits on federal land during the last four fiscal years compared with the corresponding period under former President Bill Clinton, according to a Washington Post analysis of Bureau of Land Management records.