Utah delegation chides Obama for oil-shale cutback
Energy • All five complain that the move runs counter to White House goal.
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Washington • With one voice, Utah's federal lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for its plan to drastically reduce the public land available for oil-shale and tar-sand mining.

The state's two senators and three House members sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday arguing the reductions are politically motivated and go against President Barack Obama's goal of energy independence.

"We have an administration that is focused more on re-election and appealing to their special interest-group supporters than doing what's right for the future of this country," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a statement.

Their anger stems from proposed Bureau of Land Management rules that would reduce the acres set aside for oil-shale mining from 2 million to 462,000. Nearly half the available land would be in Utah. The higher acreage was determined during the President George W. Bush's tenure, under a 2005 energy law.

The BLM said a new assessment was needed in light of environmental lawsuits and questions pertaining to the commercial viability of the resource, which must be superheated to extract oil.

In announcing the plan late last week, BLM Director Bob Abbey called it a "common-sense approach that encouraged research and development first."

But Utah's lawmakers say the move would restrict research and slow technological improvements. That didn't just come from Utah's Republicans, but also Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who said oil shale and tar sand extraction "should be allowed to compete for commercial development and BLM's proposed leasing rules are an obstacle."

Environmental groups say the proposal, which is now in a 90-day public comment period, would protect valuable lands in eastern Utah's Book Cliffs and San Rafael Swell.

"It's time for this 'industry' to stop looking for a handout and get down the so-far impossible task of developing these resources in a way that is economically sound and environmentally safe," said Stephen Bloch, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that the Obama administration used the rule change to boost the president's standing with environmentalists.

"It's another failure in leadership from this White House while energy costs and unemployment are both far too high," he said.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham