SALT LAKE CITY — A day after President Barack Obama touted his drilling-friendly public land policies in a presidential debate, Gov. Gary Herbert's adviser on energy policy criticized the federal government over the amount of land it controls in Utah and flayed environmental groups for their assault on the oil and gas industry.
Cody Stewart, appointed by the Utah governor in August, also made a blunt admission Wednesday to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee about his current employment:
"My job as energy adviser to the governor is something of a farce," he said. "It is a challenge to advise the governor on policy when we are not in control of policy in this state on this much land."
Stewart pointed out that the entire state of Florida would fit within the boundaries of Utah.
"That reflects the amount of federal land in Utah," he said.
In a meeting that detailed the deployment of the state's various agencies in the arena of energy development, Stewart conceded it is impractical, given current federal policies, for Utah to achieve competitiveness with other states.
The fundamental truths about energy development in Utah, he added, is that energy resources are abundant and significant — both renewable and nonrenewable — and they remain largely untapped.
"And we are largely second-class citizens in regards to our energy. We are not North Dakota," which Stewart pointed out has 5 percent of its land in federal ownership and is home to the Bakken Oil Field, the largest oil discovery on American soil in 40 years.
As a result of being able to tap into that resource, Stewart said energy production in North Dakota has increased 250 percent over the past five or six years, and the state unemployment rate has dipped below 3 percent.
"It's a different world we live in," he said.
That different world is driving developers to seek private land, added Kathleen Sgamma, because projects take such little time to launch under that scenario, in contrast to exploration efforts that have to go through the federal permitting process.
Sgamma, executive vice president of governmental affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, pointed to the Uintah Basin's GASCO Project, approved earlier this year after eight years of review.
Throughout the Western region, Sgamma said, natural gas production is up 26 percent on state and private lands from 2010 to 2011, but down 4 percent on federal lands. For oil, it is up 54 percent on private and state-owned lands, but only up 26 percent on federal lands.
"Production is up dramatically, but it is in spite of the federal government, not because of it," she said.
Stewart said the Herbert administration will continue to focus on "responsible energy development" and noted that it "is not hostile to one source," including the array of renewable energy opportunities that exist.
What he said is hard to combat is is the "short-sighted" views of opponents to the natural gas and oil extraction industries.
"One of the challenges we face is there is an active and concerted campaign against fossil fuels in this country and to demonize the industry," Stewart said.
With Utah so rich in natural resources yet to be developed and technology and infrastructure yet to overcome on the renewable energy front, he said the administration's position is clear.
"We proudly and staunchly defend fossil fuels use now and into the future," Stewart said.
Herbert's intransigence on his support of the coal, oil and gas industries and return of federal lands to Utah has already put him in the crosshairs of a strident campaign launched by environmentalists, climate activists and others who want more emphasis put on development of clean energy like solar and wind.
Organizers of the Outdoor Retailers convention, which brings in millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of visitors to the Salt Lake City area, have threatened to pull out because of land-use policies pushed by the governor's office. High-profile members of his Balanced Resource Council or in other key positions have left as well, because of squabbles over public lands.
Herbert's pursuit of more autonomy of public lands in Utah has led to frequent meetings with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, an Obama appointee who has instituted a number of regulatory reforms, particularly in the Bureau of Land Management, which manages nearly 23 million acres of land in Utah, or 42 percent of the state.
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