OIL AND GAS:

Interior chief slams industry groups' 'election-year politics'

Firing back at recent industry charges that the Obama administration is not promoting domestic energy development, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today announced that his department has scheduled 38 onshore oil and gas lease sales for 2010.

"We believe that our oil and gas leasing program is robust, but it is also a program we have brought back into balance," Salazar said in a call with reporters. "But you wouldn't know it if you listened to the untruths coming out of" oil and gas industry groups.

Salazar said repeated attacks have "all the flavor and deception of election-year politics" and that oil and gas trade groups need to understand that they do not own the public lands; taxpayers do. He added that companies' shareholders do not want industry trade groups to behave like an arm of a political party and said companies should choose a better path, to engage constructively and honestly with federal agencies.

Salazar also said too many federal leases get tied up in protest and litigation, which costs taxpayers and companies money, and that Interior is undertaking a comprehensive review of onshore programs to make them more efficient and more rational.

The plans for next year include a sale for two tracts in the northern reaches of the the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, Salazar said. After the department addresses deficiencies found by a federal court in the 2007-2012 offshore drilling plan, Salazar added, he expects also to soon be announcing upcoming lease sales in the outer continental shelf.

During the past year, Interior has held 32 onshore lease sales, offering more than 2.7 million acres in the West and generating more than $126 million in revenue for American taxpayers, Salazar said. The Bureau of Land Management will hold four more lease sales this year. The department has also held two offshore lease sales.

Salazar declined to name the groups, but the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS) both have stepped up criticism of the administration recently.

IPAMS released a paper last week highlighting a number of "irregularities" in the federal onshore natural gas and oil program, charging that there are many situations where Interior is slowing down the natural gas and oil program (Land Letter, Nov. 19). The group also released an analysis last week disputing the administration's reasons for continuing to defer some of the 77 Utah leases it put on hold in February (Greenwire, Nov. 20).

API sent a letter to Salazar this month pressing him to act faster on allowing domestic exploration projects, saying the department's "extreme caution" often leads to delays (Greenwire, Nov. 12).

But Salazar said the department has leased a significant number of properties and noted that there are "huge undeveloped oil and gas acreages" that are under lease but not producing oil and gas.

"Large parts of the public domain have been made available," Salazar said. "Those places are not being developed, yet we continue to make more of our public domain available for oil and gas development."

The Wilderness Society defended Salazar's record, saying there is no need to force more federal oil and gas development. The oil and gas industry "has more leases on our federal lands and waters -- tens of millions of acres -- than they know what to do with" and those acres are currently not producing oil or gas, the group said in a statement.

BLM's 37 quarterly oil and natural gas lease sales next year will offer thousands of parcels in a dozen states, most in the West. BLM's Alaska State Office oil and gas lease sale, scheduled for Aug. 11, 2010, will offer available tracts in the northeast and a portion of the northwest areas of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.