Capitol Hill Report, July 15, 2010

Tilting at windmills: The Congressional Western Caucus
If a bullet is fired from an echo chamber, does it make a war? The Congressional Western Caucus must think so, as it was up in arms Wednesday fighting the so-called “War on Western Jobs” by hosting a fake Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill with the help of several Utah representatives.

Never mind that no such war exists. Never mind that seven of the 25 counties with the fastest job growth in America are within these “besieged” Western states—three of them in Utah.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah still deployed to denounce important reforms on extractive industries, the Clean Water Act and other standard policies as a War of Eastern Aggression, rather than common sense measures. Headlining the witness list was Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who earlier in the week showed us his dove side by shying away from the war rhetoric. Still, the Beehive State, it seemed, was on the front lines, having been “attacked” by Interior Sec. Ken Salazar’s decision to refund 77 oil leases on sensitive lands that had been hastily sold and undervalued in a lease sale based on flawed management plans in December 2008.

In a video-delivered message, Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said that action cost his county 3,000 jobs—an impressive figure that according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services would have employed his 1,112 jobless constituents three times over­ were it real. But unfortunately, jobs do not an issued lease make. At the end of December 2009, over 4,000 permits issued in Utah since 2001 had not yet been drilled, and thus were not producing anything—including jobs.

Regrettably, oil companies’ penchant for buying up leases to improve paper reserves (over 3 million acres of BLM lands in Utah are under lease but not in production) went unmentioned.

Nor was the bargain rate at which these leases were sold raised as a fiscal concern. Some leases sold for as little as 1.2 percent of their established value in the December 2008 sale. One parcel in Desolation Canyon sold for the frontier sum of $11 an acre, while just 10 months earlier another parcel in Desolation Canyon fetched $950 an acre. Gov. Herbert, who complained that federal land can’t be taxed–“If I had the choice, just give me back the land and make it private,” he told the Caucus—seemed unconcerned about lost public revenue in this case.

Herbert actually defended the sale, saying the Resource Management Plans came about as the “result of a thoughtful, methodical process.”  That’s simply not the case. If the plans issued in the waning hours of the Bush administration were methodical, the method was drill and drive on everything at the expense of Utah’s breathtaking wilderness lands. That’s a policy that’s too expensive to keep, and one Sec. Salazar must fix immediately by protecting remaining wilderness quality lands as Wilderness Study Areas.