Public Lands

GOP Rep. Cannon of Utah focuses on nuclear storage, PUHCA, oil and gas leasing

Utah is fighting to block temporary storage of nuclear waste at a planned repository in Skull Valley. Oil and gas leasing on vast tracks of western federal lands is intensely controversial. Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican and chairman of the Western Caucus, discusses these and other issues -- including resumption of nuclear weapons testing -- in this edition of OnPoint.


Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Today we're joined by the chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, Representative Chris Cannon from Utah and Dan Berman, E&E Daily and Greenwire reporter. Thank you both for being here today.

Chris Cannon: My pleasure Colin.

Colin Sullivan: Congressman Cannon I'd like to start out with, you're the chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, can you talk about your agenda, as part of that caucus, and what are the most important issues on the Hill this term?

Chris Cannon: Absolutely. The caucus, the Western Caucus, is a bicameral caucus, we have senators involved, but it's a partisan caucus, it's only Republicans. That's largely because the representatives from the West are, the public lands areas, are Republicans. I think for the nation and certainly for the Western Caucus the most important issue we have is energy and getting an energy bill out. I think that's appearing to be more likely now. Watching the Senate just passed the bankruptcy bill out, a lot of discipline there and they got that bill out and it'll come over to us next week. So I think that they're going to be able to do something on their side and I'm pretty sure we'll be able to do something on the House side. So getting an energy bill is, I think, really very important.

Colin Sullivan: What are the most important provisions in that bill for your caucus?

Chris Cannon: Well, there are a bunch of things in the bill and mostly, this is not just the caucus, this is all America, this is a bill that's going to affect all of America, but it does everything. On the one hand we were dealing with a bunch of funding for hydrogen research, which I think is vitally important and the way, to help create a way to get from where we are with the incredible dependence on foreign oil that we have to an economy based upon hydrogen and other, another mix. I think a very important part of the whole mix for America, and for the whole world, is nuclear. We've learned a lot about nuclear. We haven't had any accidents. I think America is ready for nuclear. We don't have the resistance or the reaction to it that some extreme groups engendered for a period of time. You know, we have 63 vessels, ocean vessels, in the Navy that have nuclear power plants and haven't had a single accident in the whole period of time since we've been doing that. They're tended by 18-year-old kids, I mean we know a lot about nuclear now. The cost of building plants has come down. So that's a big important part of it. And getting square with how we develop oil and gas, especially in the West where the bulk of it, you know the bulk of our accessible gas is the Intermountain area and if we're going to continue to build gas power plants, if we're going to continue to heat our houses with gas we're going to have to develop some of that and probably pretty soon.

Dan Berman: In Utah, in the West in general, the Bureau of Land Management under the Bush administration and Secretary Gale Norton had been trying to speed up leases on a lot of the BLM lands out there, especially in your state. However the permitting hasn't been able to keep up with the leases. There are a number of sales. They have a four year in each of the Western states, but the permits aren't catching up. Is there any way you can get the administration to speed up that process?

Chris Cannon: We're certainly talking to them about it. In fact, we had Kathleen Clark, actually Kathleen wasn't there, it was Jim Hughes from BLM talking about this in a hearing just yesterday. We talked about what they're doing and how they can speed it up and of course their problem is they want to be responsible and good stewards of the land and as we're doing this drilling we're doing big areas. So they want to be able to do more based upon a widespread EPA analysis or EIS analysis rather than one well at a time and it's difficult. But my guess is they're going to be able to speed that up and get to the point where they can issue them more quickly. But the other side of it is litigation. They spend a huge amount of money defending the permitting process because there are people out there who just don't want us to have oil and gas.

Dan Berman: Right. Is there anything Congress can do about that, whether it's the Endangered Species Act, whether it's increasing the budget for the BLM's permitting division?

Chris Cannon: You know we've had a lot of experience with ESA for instance, the Endangered Species Act, and we've learned a lot about it. We've saved a lot of species. We've saved a terrific number of species and we will take, I think, a bipartisan thoughtful look at that. They should probably do some changing. In the West we have very harsh rules that keep us from drilling any time of the year even though you have migrant species that are back and forth. So we need to take a look at that and make some adjustments I think. But ultimately unless those people who want to stop drilling get it together and work out something that'll protect the land as opposed to stopping it, we'll probably have to do something like we did with the Healthy Forest Act, which is limit the ability to appeal these kinds of decisions over the more responsibility in the permitting authority and less in the courts.

Dan Berman: Another one of the issues that the Western Caucus has been involved with over the years is the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes program.

Chris Cannon: Yeah, yeah.

Dan Berman: Operated by the Interior Department that pays out money to states and counties with high percentages of federal lands in the counties that limit it, private property and the tax base. However the administration's budget request this year was for $200 million, a $26 million decrease from last year. How is it that you have this group of Western Republicans in Congress and that it seems every year you're fighting a friendly Republican administration over this issue?

Chris Cannon: Well, you know, I've got a couple of maps here and maybe we can get one of those up here in a moment, but every American is familiar with the red and blue map, except apparently people in the White House who don't recognize how the president got elected. We need to do something about that. We intend to do that this year. We were exceedingly disappointed in the president's budget, and I've been very clear with leadership in the House, they are not going to get an Interior appropriations bill that doesn't have full funding for PILT. That means we've got a bunch of guys who're going to sit on the floor and talk hour after hour after hour and hold that bill up until we get what we need and that's just, we've talked about it, we've worked with it and we've been slapped around.

Dan Berman: Well in previous years though you haven't received full funding for PILT either. In fact, last year's $226 million was the highest ever, yet it's still, I think, at least $100 million short of full funding.

Chris Cannon: Yeah, $130 [million].

Dan Berman: So why pick the fight now? Why didn't you pick the fight last year or the year before?

Chris Cannon: Well this has been an ongoing fight, but last year and the year before we had fewer Republicans. We had a, we are loyal. We want to see the agenda go forward. We want to see the president's agenda work and I think America has come around to view things that way pretty much. But you get in the second term, you get the blood and toil of people to get the president elected, and then we get hit with this kind of the budget. And of course it's not the president, you got people in the administration who are making hard choices. We're at war. We are at war, and we need to do some cutting, but, can we look at these maps?

Colin Sullivan: Sure.

Chris Cannon: Because I think if you view the red and yellow map, it's startling. What you see is that people in the East don't have much federal land in their states. I mean I think the largest amount is 9 percent in Virginia. People in the West have in the 30s, but if you look at New Mexico which is in the 34 percent range for federal lands, that doesn't include Indian lands. So if you take Indian lands and federal lands, two thirds of New Mexico is tied up and the same with Arizona. Utah is about two thirds federal land. We have some, a little more than that if you count the Indian lands. California is what, almost 50 percent federal lands. So you look at the West and what you see is that the dominant landlord is the federal government. And what happens is that in the West, where we have federal land, we tax at a much higher rate of our families and we spend at a much lower rate on our kids and it's all because we have this problem with the federal lands, the federal ownership of lands that we can't tax. In fact, if we can put that white chart up, this is interesting. Ronald Reagan, we made this chart based upon a comment that Ronald Reagan made where he said he saw a map and it was in red and white. The red represented federal lands. He said, you know, when you look at the map, the first thing you see is that everything west of the Mississippi River is like owned by the government. Then you look at it and you realize that it's, there's some pieces that are not all that red, not in Nevada for instance, which is 90 percent federal. But he went on to say that he wasn't aware of any other country that owned so much land except the Soviet Union. And the system in the Soviet Union is a failure. The system on our public lands is a failure. The fire hazard has gone way out of control because we are not managing that very well. The BLM lands, the grazing lands are in terrible shape as opposed to the private lands. Private land in western Utah is in remarkably good. We have a ranch called Desert Art Ranch, where we grazing are intensively and we take care of it and it's an incredibly lush place. You go across the fence and you're on BLM land, Bureau of Land Management land, and what you have is trash. It's devastation. It's dying plants. So we're not doing a very good job. We need to shift gears on that.

Colin Sullivan: Can you comment on the tone on Capitol Hill between environmentalists and property rights advocates, like yourself out West? Is it worse than it's ever been? I mean you worked for the Interior Department under the Reagan administration --

Chris Cannon: No.

Colin Sullivan: Is the tone now different than it was in the '80s with the same fights?

Chris Cannon: Many of the fights are the same. The tone is, this is an interesting question. We have now been in Congress together for a long time. I don't think there's any question but that the tone in Congress has become much, much more civil. With the environmentalist's issues, we are actually, that is people who want to develop, who want to take affirmative responsibility for tending the land, have been pretty successful. You have those people who want to create wilderness, which is a nonmanagement technique and which I think would be very destructive in many areas, that said every American has a right to know that there's a place he can go to get away from modernity. So I believe that wilderness as a recreational designation is extremely important. But to tie up land and just keep it from being managed, I think is wrong and hurtful and it is very clear that for energy development, for land management, Americans are waking up to the extreme statements and so you're not hearing the extreme statements this year, you just aren't, and last year as well. With our Interior appropriations bill two years ago, we'd always lost eight or 10 environmental amendments, two years ago we beat them all. Last year we only had one or two and one was withdrawn. So we've gotten to a point where many Republicans in the Northeast begin to understand how these things are important, how they're working. The price of gasoline has driven that a little bit, but also Republicans have just been very reasonable and thoughtful, I think, of the way we've done things. We haven't gone out and opened the gushers or let people down.

Colin Sullivan: Is it appropriate to say, it's developed land between Arches National Park and Candylands National Park, a proposal from a couple of years ago that was stopped?

Chris Cannon: You're talking about the drilling in that area?

Colin Sullivan: Right, is that --

Chris Cannon: Look what's happened to drilling. It was actually not stopped. They did their thumping, they went that way. But technology has changed dramatically. First you can do a great deal more from one drill site. They go down and drill laterally, come back and drill laterally several different times and in that particular area you have lenses of a gas, oil and gas, so that it's easy to miss if you're drilling. But if you're drilling laterally we've now developed technology, from Utah County by the way, from my district, that allows feedback from the drilling head that will tell you where those lenses are so you can now drill into those areas and get the lenses. I mean it's, you know, drill rig if you have it in a short space you can't bend it, but it's like a noodle at 10,000 feet. You can actually move around and get these with these directional drill heads and get these pockets of oil and gas. So you can do it, you get massively more return with a fraction of the surface interference. So I think we're gonna, we'll drill oil and gas and we'll do a lot of it down there.

Dan Berman: Now the same time though, again this year with the budget climate, the Energy Department has proposed cutting off some of those R&D funds for oil and gas developments that have, you know, helped develop some of those technologies. Is that yet another sign that the administration is either, maybe taking the West for granted or they've spent their money there, they've won re-election and now they're moving on?

Chris Cannon: It may be that. I suspect the fact, we've got so much drilling technology out there that we're trying to assimilate into the process. The kindest thing you say is that we're letting that happen. In fact, we have terrific technology out there. I'm a big fan of R&D especially in these areas and we've done wonderful things with R&D. So long term I would be supportive, but right now the administration's cutting everything because we're spending so much more on the war on terror and that's fine. We need to do that, but we probably need to cut programs other than just Western public lands and energy programs in the near term. There are a lot of --

Dan Berman: Yeah, do you have any in mind?

Chris Cannon: Oh, there are a number of programs. I'll just tell you that every teacher in America is angry at the Department of Education and the way the Department of Education has interfered with their lives. I was sitting at an NCLR, National Council of La Raza, event the other night and somebody got going on education and I will tell you that the left and the right may come together on this issue because it's a lot of money that's wasted and that doesn't really help kids. So there are places like that, yeah.

Colin Sullivan: If we can move on to another issue, you talked about nuclear power earlier, but the big problem is nuclear waste and where you put this nuclear waste. Now there is a proposed temporary nuclear site in Utah, which I assume you're against, correct?

Chris Cannon: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: Is the solution to not put that waste in Utah and put it in Nevada and why Nevada not Utah?

Chris Cannon: Why Nevada?

Colin Sullivan: Why anywhere?

Chris Cannon: Frankly, why anywhere except where it is? We have the security infrastructure on site now where these rods are sitting. You take them to Utah and that's a, it's harder, harder to protect them there and you're gonna leave them there part-time and you might have a jet fall from the sky and create a dirty bomb that a terrorist couldn't achieve and the winds of course, the prevailing winds, are right into the populated areas there. If you take it down to Nevada and you put it in this incredibly expensive complex, which is only less than a third paid for, you're still looking at $15 billion. The answer is storage on site and then ultimately, and hopefully soon, a reprocessing plant that will turn that, those rods back into usable nuclear material for power plants.

Colin Sullivan: Now politically do you think that Utah and Nevada delegations need to get together and say --

Chris Cannon: Yeah.

Colin Sullivan: Keep your nuclear waste out of the West? Do you need to get together with Harry Reid and say let's form a coalition here and keep the waste out of there?

Chris Cannon: I love Harry Reid as the minority leader over there. He's a good friend. He was upset because last year our delegation voted to promote, to push Yucca. Now Ron --

Colin Sullivan: It sounds like you're against Yucca?

Chris Cannon: Well it doesn't make any sense.

Dan Berman: Are you against it now that you're also fighting a waste dump in your own state?

Chris Cannon: We've always been fighting the dump in our own state, always have and the times are different. Now there are some possibilities, but the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has ruled against us on the location, so it seems more imminent. The fact is, we just, we don't want it anywhere in the West.

Dan Berman: So how are you going to fight it in your state? I know one of your colleagues in Congress, Rob Bishop, has, of all things, a wilderness bill --

Chris Cannon: Exactly.

Dan Berman: That would block the railroad and transportation to the proposed site. Is that kind of the best-case scenario for you?

Chris Cannon: Well, it's clearly one of the things that can happen that would make it more difficult. Another thing that I think is very important is that the tribe, the Goshu Tribe, has to get certification from the secretary of Interior. The tribe itself is very divided on this issue, very, very divided and the votes are very close. So I'm hoping the Interior Department will take a look at this thing and say, is it fair to foist this project off on a terrifically divided reservation where their ancestral lands are at issue and you're looking at 10,000 or 100,000 years of dedicated use. I think the answer is, I hope, it's no.

Colin Sullivan: So you support the wilderness area, yes or no?

Chris Cannon: Well the wilderness area is actually very thoughtful and I supported it last year, cosponsored it last year and we've agreed to cosponsor, I'm not sure it's been submitted but we've agreed to cosponsor it.

Dan Berman: Do you have any help in the Senate on that?

Chris Cannon: Yeah, yeah, both senators, and I think Harry Reid has been willing to be supportive. You know he did a great wilderness bill and public lands bill last year in Nevada, and we're certainly looking at something like that in Utah as well.

Colin Sullivan: Another subject I'd like to move on to, The Salt Lake Tribune had an article this week and it says, "Cannon backs nuclear weapons tests in Nevada." You have a quote where you say, "To the degree that we have people blow up our skyscrapers and hiding underground, we have to have the ability to respond to them." Can you clarify at what level you support nuclear testing, resumption of nuclear testing?

Chris Cannon: Yeah, that was a long interview with one quote and the fact is we have a nuclear arsenal. We have to know what the status of that arsenal is and we hope that the Russians also know what the status of their arsenal is and we hope that others don't develop nuclear weapons. In the case of terrorists, you've got two testing agents, one is the arsenal the other is the terrorists. I just think it's important that those people don't believe that they can burrow deep enough to get away from us. I hope I never use those things, but having the weapons and testing the weapons transforms the debate within the opposition, within the terrorist group. These are the guys, the guys, they're not the guys who go out and blow themselves up and kill a bunch kids. They put dynamite on kids and send them out to blow themselves up and kill other kids. Those people are below scum and I don't want them to be able to hide below ground far enough to get away from us. So I just think it's a significant part of the war on terrorism. Making these guys know that we can get them wherever they go and get them to the table. If they have demands let them make their demands, but a demand that all infidels be killed is not an acceptable demand.

Colin Sullivan: Just to clarify, you're not talking about above-ground nuclear testing?

Chris Cannon: No, absolutely not.

Colin Sullivan: No?

Chris Cannon: Jim Matheson's father, former governor of the state and a colleague of mine in the Congress, died from a cancer that he contracted from the fallout. My father died from cancer that was probably associated with the fallout. I grew up in southern Utah, to a large degree, and many of my friends died from that. You know, I mean, it was horrible. In fact, I was, my first law job was working with Stewart Udall on the southern Utah cancer case when it was a lawsuit instead of a law. And I'll just tell you that you cannot, the military has to be controlled, has to be overseen by civilians and the only civilian that was involved in those was Edward Teller, the only one that had any real guts and Edward Teller kept trying to tell people what the problem was and he was refused. These generals just didn't want anybody to be interfering with their testing. We have to oversee that. We have to be careful. That's Congress's job and that's why we have civilians who run the military.

Dan Berman: So why would you endorse having this testing?

Chris Cannon: Well, you do underground testing, and I've never said in Nevada, you can do it in a safe place, there are all kinds of places to do it. We've done it in Nevada --

Colin Sullivan: Not Utah though.

Chris Cannon: We haven't done it in Utah. We don't have the facilities. There's been some talk about doing it. The question always has to be, can you do it safely?

Dan Berman: Um-hmm.

Chris Cannon: Can you eliminate escaping radioactive material or can you minimize it enough to the point that it doesn't make, it is not dangerous? OK, after you do the testing, you monitor it to see what happened. This takes an enormous amount of attention. It ought to be public. It ought to be transparent. We ought to know where we are doing it and when we're doing it and what the product of that is and the terrorists need to know that we're doing it too.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We'll let that be the last word. Thanks for joining us today. I hope you come back.

Chris Cannon: Always a pleasure.

Colin Sullivan: Dan Berman thanks for being here.

Dan Berman: Thank you.

Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

[End of Audio]



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