Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Before leaving for D.C., Jeremy and Amber Harrison hold the letters they collected to give to an Interior official.

When told they could meet with the Interior Department's No. 2 official, Jeremy and Amber Harrison pulled money out of their tight savings and with friends' help traveled to Washington, D.C., from Vernal, hoping to tell how canceling federal oil leases is hurting Vernal.

But after they arrived, an aide to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes called and canceled the meeting that had been scheduled in the office of Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. They were told no other time was available with Hayes, but an alternate official could maybe meet with them sometime.

"This is not the way people ought to be treated," said an upset Bishop. He said his office had verified the meeting last week, but it was canceled at the last minute. "It is unfortunate. I mean these guys came back on their own dime to try and meet with Hayes."

It comes as the House Natural Resources Committee is beginning two days of hearings Wednesday on how to meet America's energy needs while protecting the environment, as administration officials, environmental groups, sportsmen, landowners and others are scheduled to testify.

Amid that, the Harrisons had sought Bishop's help to meet with Hayes and bring 150 or so letters from Vernal residents about how the administration's cancellation of oil leases there is hurting them.

"It's going to be like a human impact statement," Bishop said, noting he will enter all of those letters into the record at the hearing.

"We need Americans at work, not foreigners" selling foreign oil to America, Jeremy Harrison said. He and his wife want to tell how unemployment has gone from about 1 percent around Vernal to 8.5 percent, which they blame largely on administration actions making it harder to drill for oil.

Amber Harrison said she and her husband own a small business to truck crude oil. "Our income has gone down drastically. We were on the verge of losing a few items, but we were able to pull things out," she said.

"But a lot of people around us have lost entire homes and cars and are wondering if they can feed their families," she said. "Many people have had to move away because they cannot find a job."

Amber Harrison said she and her husband attended a "tea party" protest in April, and began talking with others about the need for a group to counter what they feel are misleading claims by environmental groups.

She said they formed a citizens group called Grassroots Alliance for Public Lands. "It was our response to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance," she said, and it started looking for ways to get out the story of the economic impacts of actions that make drilling harder.

When Hayes traveled to Vernal earlier this year for a hearing on canceled oil leases, the Harrisons and other members of their grass-roots alliance were there.

"I did get up and speak with David Hayes and I presented him with an 'I Love Drilling' T-shirt signed by people in Vernal. We were hopeful that because of comments he had made directly to me, that he would be willing to meet with us. Unfortunately, the willingness just isn't there," Amber Harrison said.

The Harrisons are meeting, however, with all members of the Utah delegation and with the Western Caucus of the House to tell stories of people in Vernal. They will also attend the hearings on energy, and Bishop has promised to ask some questions on their behalf while also presenting their letters.

One letter is from 9-year-old Heather Mendoza. It says that before her grandfather was laid off from his oil industry job, they lived in a home where she had a horse and a dog.

"We sold my horse because we could not afford to keep her. Where we moved in Vernal, we had to get rid of my dog as well," Mendoza wrote. "The only thing I ask is please let my grandpa go back to work so we can at least stay in Vernal."

In another letter, Kathleen Fladeland wrote that her husband has been out of work since February, after working in the oil industry for 40 years.

"I am working a part-time job, but it does not cover even a quarter of our bills," adding they will "soon be in foreclosure if he can't find a decent job."

In another letter, Julie Curry wrote how even her car wash for large trucks in Vernal has been hurt by canceling oil leases, so truckers have fewer jobs and less need of her service.

"Our business has experienced a 67 percent decrease," she wrote, adding that it went from having nine employees earlier this year to now having just two.

Jeremy Harrison said of such letters, "Stuff like this should not be happening in America."

He added that while environmental groups argue that canceling oil leases could help tourism in Vernal by making areas more pristine, "tourism may help a bit in summer. But the oil fields are what keeps the area going all year long."

e-mail: lee@desnews.com