Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he will oppose the confirmation of two Interior Department nominees until the Obama administration takes a position on his legislation that would make way for a copper mine in an Arizona national forest.
McCain told Bob Abbey, nominated as Bureau of Land Management director, and Wilma Lewis, nominated as Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, that he would oppose their confirmation over the issue.
"I think we have a right to get a response from the administration on that issue," McCain said at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday. "I will look forward to your response as quickly as possible. And until such time, I will not approve of your nomination moving forward through the committee. So I hope you'll be able to get those answers to us as quickly as possible."
Asked after the hearing if he would place a procedural "hold" on the nominations once they cleared the committee, McCain said only, "My comment stands on its own."
The Bush administration had supported the bill, but Obama administration officials have expressed concern about the measure and said they needed time to assess it. McCain said he had expected a response a week ago on S. 409, a proposed land swap that would allow Resolution Copper to build a mine on a piece of Arizona's Tonto National Forest in exchange for private lands.
At a hearing last month, Forest Service Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop -- who had expressed support for the bill when speaking on behalf of the Bush administration -- told the Senate Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee that the Obama administration has serious concerns about the bill. He said the administration had not finalized its opinion on the bill but would do so within weeks (E&E Daily, June 18).
As currently written, Holtrop said, the bill would preclude the Forest Service from reviewing the land exchange under the National Environmental Policy Act, instead allowing only for review of the mining activities that followed the exchange. Holtrop said the NEPA review should precede the land exchange, which he acknowledged would exceed the one-year deadline set out by the bill.
"We anticipate that there will be considerable concern with any decision and there is a likelihood of administrative appeal and litigation," he said. Holtrop also questioned the value of some of the private lands Resolution is offering.
McCain at the time noted that Resolution Copper -- which is owned by subsidiaries of mining giants Rio Tinto PLC and BHP-Billiton PLC -- has already spent more than $400 million studying the land and that its investors would not tolerate such expenditures without results indefinitely.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the bill's co-sponsor, earlier this year blocked an Obama Energy Department nominee in order to force the Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee to hold the hearing. The proposed mine could meet up to one-fifth of the nation's copper demand, Kyl said.
The bill has been controversial since first introduced in 2005. Supporters say the private land offered in exchange is critical to protecting local ecology and history, while critics say Resolution is using low-value lands to buy an exemption from environmental reviews on areas that should remain protected as national forest.
Transmission, renewables, ethics
The Interior nominees addressed a variety of other issues at the hearing. Discussing the difficulty of transmission siting on public lands, Abbey pledged to bring in all stakeholders early in the process in order to understand what the conflicts might be. "Nothing is easy but it is a matter of applying a little common sense," Abbey said.
Abbey insisted that BLM is the right agency to handle locating transmission lines and that it has everything needed to do the proper planning, analysis of impacts and come up with the appropriate mitigation measures. He said BLM must move quickly and make some decisions in the "very near future."
As for reviewing and approving solar and wind projects, Abbey said the biggest challenge is the large footprints of the projects. "It's important we would take actions up front to try to find the best locations on the public lands that would not only serve the purpose of solar energy proposals or wind proposals but would be on those areas where there would be fewer conflicts," he said.
On mining issues, Abbey said estimates vary but the latest figure he had seen is that there are about 20,000 or more abandoned mines with contaminants on BLM lands. The agency's efforts to address the problem will be "one of the highest priorities" of the agency if he is confirmed, he said. "It's way past time the Bureau of Land Management addresses that issue," he added. He said the agency would support "good Samaritan" legislation to allow volunteers to work on abandoned mines without liability problems.
Lewis declined to answer questions about whether she would support the Obama administration's proposal to repeal deepwater royalty relief for oil and gas companies, saying she is not up to speed on the issue. Ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she would have a "follow-up conservation" with her on the issue.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Interior has been "riddled with corruption" and asked Lewis how she would clean up the department. Lewis discussed her background as a U.S. attorney and inspector general and said she would lead by example, ensure that ethics policies are clear, require constant training and determine what recommendations still need to be implemented.
But Lewis acknowledged she had not read all of the inspector general reports criticizing the agency and declined to give specifics on reforms she would implement until she becomes more familiar with the department's current situation. Wyden said he would ask her the questions again soon and wanted more details on what is going to be done at the agencies.
Wyden said he will be introducing legislation this year to streamline forest health projects, including limiting the appeals process for lawsuits. Abbey responded that BLM should not be fearful of lawsuits and that he will encourage employees to make the best decisions without worrying about who may sue.
"What I have seen occur over the past 10 years if not longer is this fear of being sued and therefore people are reluctant to take any action at all, and therefore some of the decisions that could be made more timely are set aside and it takes us, or takes the agency, a heck of a lot longer than maybe it should in order to issue those decisions," Abbey said.
If confirmed, Lewis will oversee BLM, the Minerals Management Service and the Office of Surface Mining. She served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2001, and for the three previous years served as Interior's inspector general, the first African-American to hold that position.
Abbey spent more than 32 years working with state and federal land management agencies, including eight years as BLM's Nevada state director, before retiring from the federal government in July 2005. He is currently partner at Abbey, Stubbs & Ford LLC, where he is a private consultant specializing in Western land and resource strategies.
The committee also heard from Richard Newell, nominated to be administrator of the Energy Information Administration, the independent statistical arm of the Energy Department.
Several senators asked Newell about the increase in crude oil and gasoline prices last year and what information EIA could provide about why it happened and specifically what role market speculation might have played. Newell said EIA needs to increase its analytical capacity in that area and do a better job of explaining to policymakers and the public the dynamics of energy market prices as they are unfolding.
"EIA has an important role to play in explaining and helping folks to understand what's happening in these markets, because without that proper understanding, it's difficult to formulate good policy," he said.
Newell also pledged to examine what role speculators played. He also promised transparency in how the agency uses models to produce energy use, price and supply forecasts that will play a role in the climate change debate.
Newell is currently an associate professor of energy and environmental economics at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and has previously served as senior economist for energy and the environment on the President's Council of Economic Advisers in 2005-06.