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Washington • Top Interior Department officials, including Secretary Ken Salazar, slammed Utah's elected leaders Tuesday for waging a campaign to take control of most federal lands, arguing the move is nothing more than a political stunt to appease conservative voters.
And at the same time, Salazar promised to return to the Beehive State in the next few weeks to tout agreements on two new gas fields expected to bring nearly 5,000 additional wells to eastern Utah.
Salazar appeared at the National Press Club on Tuesday, delivering a campaign-style speech in which he outlined what he considers the real-world energy solutions of the Obama administration, while deriding House Republicans for living in a "fairy tale."
But before his address, Salazar spoke briefly with The Salt Lake Tribune about a new Utah law promising a lawsuit if Washington doesn't transfer all federal lands not designated as wilderness or as a national park to state control by 2014. The effort has the backing of top Utah officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop, and it emerged as a major theme at Saturday's state GOP convention.
Salazar sees it all as nothing but show.
"From my point of view, it defies common sense," he said. "I think it is political rhetoric you see in an election year. The fact is, Utah is a great example of where, through the use of public lands, we are creating thousands and thousands of jobs."
U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey also questioned Utah's anti-fed movement, saying it detracts from efforts to craft consensus on land conflicts on a county-by-county basis as happened in Washington County several years ago.
"I find it personally disappointing," Abbey said. "It will take a lot of energy, and it's not going to go anywhere. My preference is to look at the Washington County lands bill as an example of where our energies could be better spent."
Bishop, chairman of a public lands subcommittee, asked if Salazar and Abbey were performing a "comedy routine" and said that Salazar has repeatedly made it difficult for Utah to access natural resources to raise money for public education.
"Their efforts to whitewash what this administration does for the West defies common sense," he said. "We want our schoolchildren treated fairly."
The Interior Department is poised to approve two major drilling projects, and Salazar plans to fly to Utah in May to mark the occasion. "We'll have some positive announcements," he said.
Anadarko's 3,675-well project and Gasco's 1,298-well field have passed environmental reviews in recent weeks and await Salazar's final approval. The Anadarko project in the Uinta Basin enjoys wide support, while the Gasco project rankles environmentalists because it includes drilling around Desolate Canyon and a popular access point to the Green River.
Abbey said the final plan could reduce the land involved but keep the same number of wells.
In his Press Club address, Salazar lambasted the Bush administration's plan to allow drilling near Arches National Park, saying it was an example of a "highly divisive and unnecessarily controversial" policy, which is in contrast with the Anadarko project. He said the department is seeking to solve controversies and push a diverse energy portfolio that increases oil and natural gas production while providing new incentives to develop renewable resources.
He called this the "real energy world" and he contrasted it with "an imaginary energy world," dominated by his political foes in Washington who criticize investment in renewables and promise plans to drastically reduce gas prices.
"The good news is that this imagined energy world is actually very small," he said. "I think you can actually find its edge when you walk out of the House of Representatives."
Bishop argues that Salazar is the one spinning the truth to deceive voters, saying the "imaginary world" is one where Salazar claims the successes of companies on private land as his own, while ignoring the backlog of maintenance issues at national parks.
"The land should be used to benefit people, and this administration flat out doesn't care about people," Bishop said. "They care about interest groups. They care about campaign cash, and they may even care about votes, but not people."