Obama: Utah oil, gas lease sales needed scrutiny

Review required » He 'hit the pause button'
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President Barack Obama said Wednesday his administration's shelving of the oil and gas lease sale in Utah doesn't signal a permanent shift against drilling on federal lands in the nation's energy policy.

But the president said he wanted to suspend recent decisions of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and scrutinize them before moving forward.

"I think it is entirely appropriate for this administration to take a step back, push the pause button and review what's been with regard to leases on federal lands," Obama said in response to a question by The Salt Lake Tribune.

"We had an administration that I think was heavily tilted towards opening up lands to commercial interests, was less concerned with environmental issues and sustainability issues. And I think for our Department of Interior to say, 'Let's just take a look at what benefits we're getting' and "Are we getting a fair deal, are we getting the kinds of royalties that would make sense?' There's nothing inappropriate."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pulled the plug on 77 disputed federal oil and gas leases in Utah earlier this month, rejecting the leases for some 103,000 acres of public land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, Desolation Canyon and Nine Mile Canyon.

The move drew jeers from those hoping to tap energy deposits there, but was hailed by environmentalists concerned about scarring pristine areas. Some Republicans, including Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, charged that the president cost jobs and hurt potential royalty payments during dire times.

Obama, in a discussion with 16 Washington newspaper correspondents, rejected the criticisms. He said none of his decisions regarding drilling -- including setting aside a Bush-era plan for expanded offshore drilling -- have caused economic problems with the industry, and that the administration's ultimate decisions will take account of all parties, including industry and commercial interests.

"We haven't made a lot of hard and fast decisions right now," the president said. "What we've really done is said, 'Let's slow this thing down and give us an opportunity to evaluate what's been done over the last several years.'"

Salazar's decision to throw out the December auction of federal leases put a halt to what critics say was a 7-year process that cost about $300 million.

Jeff Hartley, a Utah Republican and an energy industry consultant, said he hopes Obama stays true to his words and gives consideration to all affected parties, including the state of Utah and oil and gas companies.

"The indications we've seen so far, from Secretary Salazar and others is that they might throw the baby out with the bath water -- and on some federal land issues, especially on resource management plans that took years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars," Hartley said. "We hope this administration will move forward with those and not make the state go through that again."

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, disputed the need to hold off on the lease sale, saying it had been studied over and over and signed off on by the state and the Bureau of Land Management.

"I can understand he would say, 'I don't know what I'm doing, give me time to figure out what I want to do', but it all comes back to the fact … there's nothing that has been done slower than this," Bishop said. "This is a process that has been going on forever."

Obama invited reporters from several newspapers to the White House's Roosevelt Room for nearly an hour-long question-and-answer session on the giant stimulus package moving through Congress and soon to land on his desk.

In a wide-ranging exchange, Obama said some of the "scrubbing of the bill" in the Senate made sense, while some didn't. But he said he hopes the final version will prop up the nation's economy and save or create up to 4 million jobs.

"No president expects to get 100 percent of what they want," Obama said.

Senate and House negotiators came to an agreement Wednesday on the differences between their stimulus packages, though it was unclear yet how much money Utah will see from the deal. But it is expected the state will reap more than a billion dollars in spending, plus hundreds of millions in tax cuts.

The president cautioned Americans that the package wasn't the end-all solution to the economic crisis, but that it would help save and create jobs, give much-needed tax relief and build a foundation for economic growth in energy, health care and other fields.

"This is just one leg in a multi-legged stool when it comes to fixing the economy," the president said.