Interior chief: Energy development continues on public lands

Salazar notes that in the last seven weeks the department has sold seven oil and gas leases worth $33 million in federal revenue.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Tuesday defended the Obama administration's stance on developing energy on federal lands and waters at his first appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee since becoming the head of the department.

Salazar responded to Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and other critics who have accused the administration for trying to roll back Bush administration attempts to expand domestic oil and natural gas production.

"The fact is that much of what we are still doing is continuing to develop oil and gas both onshore and offshore," Salazar said. "It is very much a part of our energy future." The department in the last seven weeks, he said, has sold seven oil and gas leases worth $33 million in federal revenue.

Salazar is traveling to New Orleans Wednesday for a lease sale covering nearly 35 million acres in a section of the Gulf of Mexico opened up in energy legislation signed into law in December 2007. The department is reviewing ways to at least partly reinstate an offshore drilling ban that expired last year and may scale back oil shale development in the West. But Salazar said the administration still opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Murkowski has offered a new bill authorizing slant drilling there provided it minimizes disturbances to wildlife and the environment.

The Interior Department and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday the end of a long stalemate between the two agencies regarding federal oversight of offshore renewable energy projects. The two agencies have signed an initial memorandum of understanding "that will allow us to move forward with the siting of renewable energy facilities in the outer continental shelf," Salazar told the committee. Interior would handle wind projects and FERC would oversee hydropower projects, such as wave, tidal and ocean current. Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Murkowski suggested they may need to clarify this division in an energy bill they are working on this month.

Another memorandum of understanding between the two agencies regarding the permitting and licensing of the projects is forthcoming, Salazar said. He said that while the two agencies may be ready to finalize rules proposed by the Bush administration for setting up offshore alternative energy development in a couple of months, that could be delayed several more months if major changes are made to them. Salazar afterward said he is interested in talking to Bingaman and Murkowski about including language in the bill that would at a minimum examine whether solar power plants can be located at Defense Department sites in Southern California, and perhaps elsewhere, without compromising military missions.