Updated: November 24, 2009 at 12:00 am
WASHINGTON • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lashed out at the oil and gas industry Tuesday, accusing some industry trade groups of acting like an arm of the Republican Party in criticizing the Obama administration's record on energy production.
Salazar made the comments as he announced 38 lease sales scheduled next year on public lands, mostly in Western states. Salazar called the lease sales a sign that the administration was moving forward with a comprehensive energy strategy that includes oil, gas and renewable energy, despite what he said were false claims that the Democratic administration was hindering domestic energy development.
"We believe that our oil and gas leasing program is robust, but it is also a program that we have brought back into balance," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. "But you wouldn't know it if you listened to the untruths coming out of some of the corners of the oil and gas industry."
Specifically, Salazar said some industry trade groups were "behaving like an arm of a political party" — a clear reference to the GOP — with accusations that he said have all the poison of a political campaign.
"Trade groups need to understand that they do not own the nation's public lands. Taxpayers do," Salazar said.
Salazar was responding to a series of complaints in recent weeks from industry groups and Republicans in Congress that the Obama administration has sharply curtailed oil and gas leases on federal lands. A report last week by the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States said the new administration is scaring away drillers, who accuse officials of holding up leases after taking auction money from the companies.
The report came as the government held an auction of public lands in Utah that was remarkable for how few parcels were offered or sold. Only five drilling leases sold on Nov. 17.
Industry representatives also have criticized Salazar for suspending the award of 60 of 77 leases sold at a contested December 2008 auction in Utah. Salazar faulted the outgoing Bush administration for rushing to award leases on the doorstep of many of Utah's national parks.
Marc Smith, executive director of the Mountain States group, said it was reasonable to ask Interior officials to explain their decisions and express concern when trends are headed in a direction the industry opposes.
"The management of federal energy resources has profound implications for the cost of energy, job creation, revenue growth and economic activity," Smith said. "We were very encouraged to hear that Secretary Salazar believes it is important for the oil and gas industry to have certainty" in securing federal leases.
Salazar defended the administration's record, saying 32 onshore lease sales have been held this year, offering more than 2.7 million acres in the West and generating more than $126 million in revenue.
The 38 lease sales to be offered next year include the first sale in nearly two years in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, where environmentalists are seeking permanent protection from oil and gas drilling.
"Our nation needs a balanced and appropriate use of our conventional and renewable energy resources. That means oil, gas and coal will continue to play an important role in our energy mix as we develop and expand the use of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable sources," Salazar said.
Kate Zimmerman, senior policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, said the industry representatives were trying to blame Salazar for a slowdown in oil and gas leases that has more to do with the economy than political interference.
"While there are not as many leases as issued in 2008, it's also true that the economy is a lot slower and gas storage is at an all-time high, so there isn't as much need right now for additional oil and gas drilling," she said.
Oil and gas companies have millions of acres under lease that they are not developing, Zimmerman and others said. Prices for oil and natural gas have dropped sharply in recent months due to the recession.
On the Net:
Interior Department: http://www.doi.gov
Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States: http://ipams.org/