Jewell to be grilled on conservation, fracking, legacy wells in first hearing as secretary

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will make her first appearance before Congress tomorrow to defend her agency's $11.7 billion budget, a proposal that envisions a significant boost in conservation cash and new fees on the oil and gas industry.

At the same time this week, Bureau of Land Management Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze will defend his agency's budget to a House panel.

Jewell, along with outgoing Deputy Secretary David Hayes; Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh; and Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Budget, Finance, Performance and Acquisition Pam Haze, will testify before the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

Jewell, the former CEO of outdoor retailer REI, is likely to be grilled on a panoply of Interior issues ranging from land acquisition to legacy wells in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A) and possibly wildfires.

Interior oversees conservation, energy development and wildlife protections on one-fifth of the U.S. landmass and nearly all of its oceans, touching constituents in nearly every state.


The president's request, which is a 4 percent bump over fiscal 2012 levels, "provides a stark contrast to the irrational cuts of the sequester," former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in a conference call last month. "Interior finds itself limping along with what amounts to a 9 percent cut for the remainder of the fiscal year."

The budget essentially reverses the steep budget cuts for the remainder of fiscal 2013 that Salazar said have already resulted in fewer park police, reduced services at parks, significant cuts in payments to states, reduced youth hiring and furloughs.

The budget -- which was crafted before Jewell's arrival at Interior -- includes $1.2 billion for BLM, $1.3 billion for the Fish and Wildlife Service and $2.3 billion for the National Park Service.

For the first time, the budget requests mandatory funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to acquire new federal lands and secure conservation easements on private lands. It seeks $600 million in 2014 -- more than 50 percent higher than current levels -- and $900 million, its maximum authorized amount, in 2015.

LWCF was a pet project of Jewell's while she was at REI and is a cornerstone of Obama's Great Outdoors initiative, which Jewell enthusiastically endorsed.

The proposal is likely to be well-received by Democrats on the panel, particularly LWCF stalwarts Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Tom Udall of New Mexico.

But Republicans including ranking member Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have long questioned the fiscal prudence of acquiring new federal lands when the agency faces roughly $20 billion in deferred maintenance.

In addition to her questions about LWCF, Murkowski may raise concerns about a separate budget proposal to use a portion of Alaska's energy revenues from NPR-A to help fund the cleanup of abandoned wells and to accelerate the Bureau of Land Management's conveyance of federal lands to Alaska Natives and the state.

"This is another slap to the state by the federal management agencies," Murkowski, who has long criticized the abandoned federal wells as a double standard, said in a statement last month. "Not only does the federal government not live up to its promises, but now the administration wants to stick us with the bill."

Oil and gas issues will likely also factor largely in tomorrow's hearing.

Jewell recently said the agency was within weeks of releasing a rule to tighten regulation of hydraulic fracturing on public lands, a proposal that -- while more amenable to industry than when it was first proposed a year ago -- is still vociferously opposed by drilling firms and oil and gas-producing states.

Murkowski and panel member Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who have opposed Interior policies that they warn would deter investments in public lands, may ask Jewell for details on the newly revised rule as well as an Obama proposal to raise royalty rates on oil produced on public lands.

The Interior budget also proposes $48 million in new oil and gas inspection fees and a $6-per-acre fee on nonproducing leases, proposals that Congress has rebuffed in previous years but that are strongly endorsed by many Democrats and conservationists.

Western senators may also ask Jewell how the agency intends to prepare for the wildfire season following a 2012 season that was the third-largest, by acres, on record since the 1960s. Tester, Udall and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) all represent states that were hard hit by wildfires last summer and remain at high risk.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, last month criticized the Interior budget for reducing hazardous fuels funding by $87 million. "We are also not addressing the long-term costs of fires," Simpson said at the time.

The Obama budget also again proposes implementing a $1 administrative fee to graze livestock on public lands, a plan that last year drew jeers from Republicans and stock-growers groups but is strongly supported by environmentalists who say the program drains taxpayer dollars.

BLM official to defend budget

While Jewell defends Interior's budget, Kornze, who functions as BLM's acting director, will be arguing for his agency's request before Simpson's panel.

Kornze will make his first appearance before Congress to defend the agency's $1.2 billion budget request, an increase of $32.6 million or 2.9 percent above the 2012 enacted budget.

It's likely that wildfire and sage grouse will factor prominently in this hearing, as Simpson's home state of Idaho is significantly affected by both.

According to BLM, wildfires last year burned more than 3.3 million acres of agency lands, including 2 million acres of priority sage grouse habitat and 18 percent of BLM grazing allotments.

That's significant since grazing is a major economic driver in parts of the West, particularly Idaho, and wildfire is a leading threat to sage grouse, which Interior has said warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Across the West, BLM is working to update nearly 100 land management plans to ensure that the sage grouse does not need to be listed.

Simpson last month also raised concerns with Salazar over the costs of "frivolous" lawsuits filed against the government to restrict use of federal lands. BLM, particularly as it pertains to grazing in Idaho, is often the subject of those lawsuits.

"The truth is that there are people on both sides of the issue who, if they don't get their way, will just sue," Simpson said last month. "And as budgets decline, litigation goes up. This is a major challenge that we face: How do we protect the public's ability to have a say in how their public lands are managed while limiting wasteful, frivolous lawsuits?"

Members may also discuss the pending expiration of payments in lieu of taxes, a program BLM administers that compensates Western communities with large blocks of tax-exempt federal lands.

Schedule: The Interior budget hearing is Tuesday, May 7, at 10:30 a.m. in 124 Dirksen.

Witnesses: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; outgoing Deputy Secretary David Hayes; Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh; and Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Budget, Finance, Performance and Acquisition Pam Haze.

Schedule: The BLM hearing is Tuesday, May 7, at 9:30 a.m. in B-308 Rayburn.

Witness: Bureau of Land Management Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze.

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