Sally Jewell is stepping into one of the most contentious jobs in the federal government. The new Interior secretary will have to walk a thin line between those who want to drill, run all-terrain vehicles, mine and graze on all public lands in the West and those who would like to see millions of acres protected for future generations.
The former REI chief executive, oil company employee and board member of the National Parks Conservation Association seems to be the perfect person for the job. Right out of the chute, she will encounter several issues that directly affect Utah.
Regarding oil shale and tar sands development, Jewell's predecessor, Ken Salazar, has bequeathed her a sensible plan that reduces the Bush administration's far too sweeping approval of 2.5 million development acres and substitutes a set of rules that focuses on research to determine the viability of the industry.
The Bureau of Land Management under Salazar approved last month a "record of decision" that permits oil shale research on 678,700 acres in three states, including 360,400 in Utah. No more permits will be issued until the industry proves its technology capable of producing oil economically and without destroying fragile Western ecosystems and poisoning dwindling water supplies.
Utah's economy cannot tolerate more of the boom-and-bust cycles seen in non-traditional oil development in the past. And climate change and population growth are already combining to deplete dwindling Western water. Without better technology, oil shale production uses vast amounts of water and turns it into poison full of arsenic, cadmium and selenium that cannot be reclaimed. Waiting to issue more permits for this kind of development will leave more lands available for traditional gas and oil drilling.
Jewell should stand by this plan.
However, she should not feel compelled to uphold an agreement reached a decade ago between another predecessor, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
That agreement curbed the authority of the BLM to set aside "wilderness study areas" until Congress could consider those lands for permanent wilderness designation. It essentially ended the designation of wilderness, even though many lands in Utah deserve such protection.
The agreement, although considered gospel by drill-everywhere proponents, is not set in stone. It can and should be modified or eliminated.
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