New Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday that he is reviewing possibly overturning "midnight actions" by the Bush administration -- including a controversial auction of oil drilling leases near Utah national parks, and clearing the way for leases for commercial oil shale development in Utah.
"We are looking at all of the options, and we are putting those in the category of midnight actions of the Bush administration," Salazar told a teleconference of reporters.
Not only is Salazar looking at ways to stop issuing the oil leases near Utah national parks that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management auctioned last month, he is apparently weighing halting any prosecution of an activist -- Tim DeChristopher -- who ran up bids without any intention of buying parcels (and won bids he cannot afford for some).
"It (prosecution of DeChristopher) is something we have on our radar screen, and no decision has been made," Salazar said about the case.
Environmental groups have called on the Obama administration to void last month's auction. A federal judge also put a temporary hold on those leases near such areas as Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Nine Mile Canyon to consider merits of a lawsuit by seven environmental and historical preservation groups.
Salazar hinted the administration itself, without any court order, is also thinking about halting the auctioned leases.
"We are examining our options and seeing what we are able to do with respect to those actions. We will take a look at it," he said.
He said another of the "midnight actions" by the Bush administration that could be halted is its moves toward allowing leases for commercial oil shale production in Utah, which Salazar said is premature.
As U.S. senator from Colorado, Salazar fought last year to preserve a moratorium against such commercial oil shale leases. It expired anyway when Congress failed to extend it at a time when gasoline prices were soaring. (Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, helped lead the fight to dump that moratorium.)
Salazar said in response to a Deseret News question Wednesday that too many unknowns about oil shale development remain to proceed with commercial leases.
"There is no answer to the question as to how much water will be required" or how much energy it will take to extract oil shale and "how that will ultimately contribute to the issue of climate change," he said.
"I think until those very fundamental questions are answered, it makes no sense to move toward a commercial oil shale leasing program," he said. "So that is one of those midnight actions of the Bush administration that we will be reviewing and making thoughtful decisions about how to move forward."
However, Salazar said research and development into oil shale should continue to seek answers to such questions about its cost- effectiveness and environmental impacts.
"The research and development efforts that are under way I believe should be continued because there are huge resources in the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming ... and those research and development efforts are, I think, appropriate," he said.
While disliking the Utah oil and oil shale leases, Salazar said one of the priorities he intends to pursue at the Interior Department is to help America become an energy independent nation, and one that is more "green" and uses more renewable energy sources.
"I believe very strongly in this issue. I think inescapable forces (that) compel us to move forward with this new energy frontier are the realities of national security, environmental security and global warming, as well as economic opportunities here at home," he said.
He added he seeks "the right balance for the development of our conventional fuels and resources so that we are protecting the environment, at the same time recognizing as we transition to the new energy frontier we need to use our conventional fuels to help us sustain our economy."