Bruce Babbitt pitches plan for balancing drilling, conservation

Oil and gas development on public lands is edging out public conservation under President Barack Obama, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Tuesday.

The Arizonan, who served under former President Bill Clinton for eight years, urged Obama to shift course in his second term by setting aside more federal lands for permanent protection.

“So far under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas,” Babbitt said in a speech at the National Press Club, noting that companies have leased more than 6 million acres for energy development in the past four years, during which just 2.6 million acres have been permanently protected.

“In the Obama era, land conservation is again falling behind,” Babbitt said. “This lopsided public land administration in favor of the oil and gas industry cannot continue.”

Babbitt implored the Obama administration to adopt a 1:1 ratio governing energy development and conservation of public lands, with every one acre leased for oil and gas drilling offset by an acre designated for permanent protection. The current ratio is about 1:2.4, compared with 1:1 under Clinton and 1:1.2 under former President George H.W. Bush.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw stressed that the Obama administration has already “charted an impressive course for conservation” and aims to build “on these historic achievements.”

“Our guiding principle from the beginning has been a balanced approach to achieving an all-of-the-above energy strategy while also taking important steps to preserve our treasured landscapes, like the Grand Canyon and the Everglades, and partnering with local stakeholders to support their conservation priorities,” Kershaw said.

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Babbitt also urged the president to launch the campaign by using his powers under the century-old Antiquities Act to designate those protected areas.

Babbitt knows well the power of that law. Clinton used it to create more national monuments than any other president.

Whether they come from the White House or Capitol Hill, such protected designations have been sliding ever since. According to Interior Department data cited by Babbitt:

  • Under George H.W. Bush, Congress and the administration set aside nearly 18 million acres for protection.
  • Under Clinton, nearly 27 million acres were set aside.
  • Under former President George W. Bush, nearly 4 million acres won protected status.
  • And under Obama, so far, just 2.6 million acres have been walled off.

But using the Antiquities Act is a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where some congressional Republicans have pushed for its repeal. While Congress has the power to designate national monuments and wilderness areas, the 1906 law allows presidents to do the same thing unilaterally, without input or action by lawmakers.

Babbitt said the answer is to turn up the pressure.

“The best defense of the Antiquities Act is to use it,” he said. “By using it, we show the American people what we have and what the plan is for protecting it.”

Babbitt cast Obama’s White House authority to designate national monuments as the best way around “obstructionists” in the House of Representatives who have opposed new wilderness.

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“The idea that you can civilize these people by making concessions is entirely wrong,” Babbitt said, noting that a Clinton-era move to allow logging in national forestland didn’t appease critics. “All it does is up their demand for more.”

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said Babbitt was presenting a “false choice.”

“We can have responsible energy development and protect the land,” she said. “He’s confusing a 10-year (oil and gas) lease with wilderness protection that is in perpetuity.”

Sgamma stressed that “oil and natural gas development has a small and temporary impact,” with leased areas eventually turned back over to the government.

Lands that have been used for oil and gas development generally do not qualify for wilderness protection.

Designating broad swaths of land for permanent protection — and walling off energy development in those areas — “would be taking that land away from the American people as a source of wealth,” she added.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, head of the House Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee, said he might support a 1:1 concept “if we started at the position of parity.” But, he said, “deserving places are already being protected,” with 293 million acres of Bureau of Land Management territory “set aside for conservation.”

Babbitt offered some praise for the Obama administration and outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who he credited with working with Congress on passage of a 2009 public lands bill that set aside some 2 million acres of wilderness and creating more than 1,000 miles of scenic river designations.

And Babbitt suggested that the recommendations of lawmakers and local stakeholders should be heeded in targeting spaces for permanent protection. For instance, he cited Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to set aside lands in the Mojave Desert for conservation.