Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Congress Wednesday that he will not support oil drilling near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, nor Dinosaur National Monument.
That comes as his office is reviewing which of 77 canceled oil and gas leases in those general areas should be reinstated after Salazar earlier this year rescinded a Bush administration auction of them. It also comes as a Vernal couple who depend on the oil industry for their livelihood traveled to Washington at the invitation of the Department of the Interior only to be stood up by Salazar's top deputy.
Salazar also said the Obama administration should not be blamed for economic problems in Utah oil country related to rescinding the auction, but the Bush administration should be for rushing the auction without fully consulting the National Park Service.
"What happened with those 77 parcels … is that there was simply not the consultation that should have taken place there between the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service," Salazar told the House Natural Resources Committee.
"Because that consultation did not take place, there was a need to review that to ensure that the other legal interests of the United States of America were being protected," he said.
The comments came in response to questions by committee members during a hearing on a Democratic bill seeking to meet future U.S. energy needs while also protecting the environment. Republicans contend the bill will make oil, gas and oil shale development more difficult and filled with delays by federal review.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., complained the administration already is making it too difficult to drill for oil and asked about the canceled Utah leases.
Salazar said about them, "Many of those lease parcels are in fact going forward. But the fact is I don't believe we should drill everywhere because not everyplace is appropriate for us to drill."
Salazar added, "We shouldn't be drilling near Arches National Park and Canyonlands and Dinosaur. Those are important treasures that we need to protect."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, complained that Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes had canceled a meeting with Jeremy and Amber Harrison of Vernal who brought 150 letters from neighbors to describe economic distress from the canceled auction — after they spent their own money to travel to Washington on the promise of meeting him Tuesday.
"I'd be happy to take whatever documents they have," Salazar said, but said economic problems in the Uintah Basin should be blamed more on rushing a bad auction than on him for trying to fix it.
"Sometimes what ends up happening is when the government does things in a rushed and wrong way, you end up having consequences to human beings like the Harrisons that you don't have when you do it the right way," Salazar said.
The Harrisons own a small crude oil trucking company. They told the Deseret News their income dropped dramatically because of the canceled leases.
They brought letters from others to show impacts from a waitress who had her hours cut because fewer people are eating out to a truck wash that lost two-thirds of its business to a 9-year-old who wrote about being forced to sell her horse and give away her dog when her oil-worker grandfather was laid off.
"Look at what is happening to real people on the ground as a result of decisions the Department of Interior has made in my home state of Utah," Bishop said.
Bishop complained canceling the meeting with the Harrisons shows that at the Interior Department, "We are leaving an open-door policy for interest groups, but not necessarily for citizens."
Bishop also complained that the department has not provided documents he has requested that he says may show it has a too cozy relationship with environmental groups that oppose oil drilling in Utah.
"Your department has been foot-dragging, stonewalling and the only thing we have received is the apparently false claim that there are only seven communications," Bishop said.
Salazar said, "We have thousands of pages, frankly, that have been sent over (or) are being sent over. … You've gotten a lot of those documents. You're getting a lot more."
Also at the hearing, Salazar announced the Interior Department is canceling a controversial program that allows companies to give oil and gas as "in-kind" payments for royalties instead of cash.
Last year, the Minerals Management Service was hit with a scandal for some employees who oversaw that program taking cash or sexual favors from companies they oversaw. Salazar called the program "a blemish on the department."
He noted that the department does not take "in-kind" payments for such things as its timber or livestock grazing programs, and should get out of the oil and gas business and take cash royalty payments.
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