Washington » Utah Sen. Bob Bennett vowed to block a second high-profile nominee to the Interior Department on Thursday, ratcheting up pressure on the Obama administration to negotiate on oil and gas drilling in the West.
The move comes as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visits Utah on Friday to highlight projects paid for by the $787 billion economic stimulus bill. But Bennett, a Republican, said Salazar's actions have caused more economic hardship than help.
He is infuriated that Salazar pulled back 77 oil and gas leases in Utah, saying the secretary's actions have some oil executives talking about abandoning rural Utah for less controversial drilling locations.
"This is a big, big deal with hundreds of millions of dollars for the state at risk," said Bennett, a member of the Senate energy committee.
Under Senate rules, Bennett has the right to "put a hold" on the nomination of Hilary Chandler Tompkins, who is President Barack Obama's pick to be the Interior solicitor or chief legal adviser. It would take 60 votes for the Senate to confirm her over Bennett's objection. Bennett also has placed a hold on the nomination of David Hayes, who if confirmed would be the deputy Interior secretary.
On Jan. 17, before Salazar took any action, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina indefinitely halted action on the 77 parcels consisting of more than 103,000 acres in eastern and southern Utah in response to a suit filed by environmental groups. The parcels Urbina ruled on are near such areas as Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.
He ruled the Bureau of Land Management failed to conduct proper environmental assessments.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Society, an environmental group that sued to block the leases, has criticized Bennett for holding up Interior officials, saying it is "unfortunate and a diversion" from the department's efforts to support renewable energy and other priorities.
Before Bennett agrees to release the nominations, he wants Salazar to order that scientific review of the 77 blocked leases. He believes that review will show there's no significant reason to block drilling on those lands.
"As soon as they come forward and say we have an honest review, then we will sit down and talk," Bennett said.
Bennett also wants Salazar, Hayes and Tompkins to assure him that they are not trying to undermine a landmark 2003 legal settlement between Utah and the federal government that froze the state's designated wilderness study areas at 3.2 million acres. He is worried that removing that freeze could hurt Utah's energy industry.
"I am deeply concerned that some in the department are coordinating with certain members of the environmental community to undermine the settlement agreement," Bennett wrote in a letter to Salazar dated Thursday.
Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch sent his own letter to Salazar on Thursday, welcoming him to the state but also giving him some advice on how to be a successful Interior secretary.
Hatch's letter also mentions the lease pull back, calling it "an attack on some of Utah's best natural gas potential."
» The Senate confirmed Tom Strickland as the assistant secretary of the Interior for fish, wildlife and parks on a vote of 89 to 2. Strickland, who will now oversee the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a former U.S. attorney for Colorado. An anonymous Republican had held up his nomination for weeks.
» Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in blocking David Hayes' nomination for deputy Interior secretary. Murkowski said she was upset Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is requiring federal agencies to consult with Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service before taking any action on a project that could impact an endangered species. She supported the previous Bush administration rule that made it easier for new construction to go forward.