Democrats ask: How can we drill, baby, drill if we let sequester happen?


McClatchy Newspapers

The upcoming automatic federal budget cuts would mean a big hit to energy development, as well as to America’s national parks, according to the Interior Department, which says oil and gas leasing would be slowed and popular parks would see reduced hours and fewer services.

But there’s skepticism and suggestions that the Obama administration is playing politics with its projections, exaggerating the potential harm to get Congress to postpone the cuts or, if the reductions happen, to blame Republicans for the outcomes.

There are $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts scheduled to start taking effect March 1 unless President Barack Obama and Congress can agree on some other solution to curb the federal budget deficit.

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Senate Appropriations Committee recently that “development of oil, gas and coal on federal lands and waters would slow down” if the across-the-board cuts, known as sequestration, happen. He said his department would have to reduce the programs that issue oil and gas permits, plan for new projects, do environmental reviews and inspect operations.

That means some 300 fewer oil and gas leases would be issued in Western states, while Gulf of Mexico exploration plans would be put at risk and oil permitting would be slowed in Alaska, Salazar said.

Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, took up the call this week and declared the cuts “the biggest threat to new drilling right now.”

He said the Interior Department faced an 8.2 percent budget cut and might see layoffs among those federal workers who oversee drilling.

“Republicans say they want to ‘drill, baby, drill,’ ” Markey said in an analysis released by his office.

“Yet by letting the sequestration go forward, Republicans in Congress will put the brakes on oil and gas development on public lands in America and reduce our ability to protect against another offshore drilling disaster.”

David Kreutzer, an energy specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation research center, said Markey was no champion of oil drilling and that politics were at work. Kreutzer said he wasn’t surprised that the interior secretary was linking the cuts to the oil and gas drilling that Republicans enthusiastically advocated.

“It is pretty much standard practice for agencies to highlight the cuts most dear to those who have the power to stay the cuts,” Kreutzer said.

Among Salazar’s first acts as interior secretary in 2009 was canceling 77 oil and gas exploration leases on federal lands in Utah, Kreutzer said. “So it’s not hard to imagine him using the sequestration as a reason to further restrict access to our oil and gas reserves regardless of how significant the budget pressure actually may be.”

Salazar said national parks also would get hit. A National Park Service memo shows more than $1 million apiece in cuts to Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks, and the budgets of many other parks reduced by more than $600,000 this year.

“Congress might just as well put a big ‘Keep Out!’ sign at the entrance to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Cape Cod seashore and every other iconic national park in the U.S.,” Joan Anzelmo, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said in an email.

The retirees group sent a statement to the news media this week saying the impacts would include a delay in spring road openings at Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national parks. Visitors centers and campgrounds at other parks would close. The group said there’d be delays in access to the rim of the Grand Canyon and less emergency response for drivers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among other reductions around the country. The group said its information came from unnamed sources “inside and outside the agency.”

The National Park Service wouldn’t release or even confirm details of the reductions, saying it’s still planning how it would deal with what an agency memo described as a 5 percent cut for each park.

The information from the retirees group shouldn’t be considered final, Alaska National Park Service spokeswoman Rebecca Talbott said. But the potential consequence in Alaska’s Denali National Park is delayed plowing operations on the spring road, she said, which would hurt businesses that cater to park visitors.

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