Norton defends budget proposals to expand public lands development

Interior Sec. Gale Norton Tuesday defended the Bush Administration's new emphasis on increased industry access to public lands in testimony before a Senate committee. She maintained exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would not necessarily harm the environment.

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 25 -- US Interior Sec. Gale Norton Tuesday defended the Bush administration's new emphasis on increased industry access to public lands in testimony before a Senate committee.

Norton said, for example, that allowing controversial exploration to occur on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was environmentally sound because industry has technology that would protect the area's fragile terrain.

That view is supported by industry but not by a majority of lawmakers. Congressional supporters of an ANWR lease sale acknowledge they have an uphill fight this year.

Interior's $12.8 billion budget request for fiscal year 2002 adds $15 million to the Bureau of Land Management's spending for an expanded energy and mineral program. The proposal includes $5 million for BLM to identify and evaluate oil and gas resources and reserves on public lands, as required by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 2000 (OGJ Online, Apr. 9, 2001).

Norton told the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations BLM will work with the Department of Energy, the US Forest Service, and the US Geological Survey to survey onshore reserves. An increase of $5 million will be used to support another lease sale offering in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and to initiate planning and associated studies in the ANWR coastal plain area to support future oil and gas lease sales "if authorized by Congress," Norton told lawmakers.

Norton was expected to present similar remarks to a House panel Wednesday.

The budget also includes an additional $2 million to increase leasing and processing of permits to drill for coalbed methane, and $3 million to increase coal leasing and other mineral development on federal and Indian lands and to address increased workload for land and realty processing of rights-of-way.

The budget includes an increase of $7.4 million for the Minerals Management Service's Gulf of Mexico leasing and regulatory program. The budget also assumes that Lease Sale 181, opposed by some members of the Florida congressional delegation and Gov. Jeb Bush (R), is held on schedule in December.

The budget does not assume however, that Congress will allow a 2-decade moratorium on drilling in most offshore waters to be lifted, although the White House has signaled it would like to see more federal offshore development. Most of the Outer Continental Shelf is barred from development, except for the Gulf of Mexico and parts of offshore Alaska.

Norton has proposed MMS get an additional $7.3 million upgrade to its management system to support an expanded royalty-in-kind program.

"When favorable conditions exist, taking royalties in value is an innovative approach that may potentially reduce administrative burdens," she told the subcommittee.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the panel such as Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) used the hearing to criticize recent White House policy decisions on the environment.

He assailed the ANWR leasing proposal and also President George W. Bush's decision to not support the Kyoto global warming treaty. Norton said Bush thinks more time is needed to reach a scientific and public consensus on the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment.

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