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Senate votes to ban monument mining

Restriction would prevail even if lines redrawn later

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WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday to ban new coal mining and oil drilling on all federal land now within national monuments.

Debate focused largely on whether to allow developing someday the vast reserves of coal and coal methane gas in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The amendment adopted would ban mining on land there even if boundaries are redrawn and shrunk.

That came just hours after House Resources Committee Chairman Jim Hansen, R-Utah, introduced as part of President Bush's energy plan a bill that includes ordering an inventory of coal resources on most public lands, including national monuments.

"President Bush needs to realize that damaging these irreplaceable lands is not going to solve America's energy crisis, but it could cause a crisis in conservation," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., sponsor of the amendment.

The Senate voted 57-42 to add it to the 2002 Interior Department spending bill. The House recently added a similar amendment to its version of the bill on a 242-173 vote.

Durbin — who is also the Senate sponsor of a bill to create 8 million acres of wilderness areas in Utah — said, "The real intent of this amendment is to preserve the existing boundaries of monuments so this administration can't shrink them to make even more lands available for energy exploration."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., added, "Drilling in our national monuments is just wrong. Today, 95 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands in the Western states are open to coal, oil and gas leasing. We do not need to open up our national monuments."

But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, argued that the 22 monuments created or enlarged by former President Bill Clinton were often formed in secret to please environmentalists in election years. He said they were created in haste and that redrawing boundaries to allow energy development in less-than-pristine areas may be wise.

He complained Clinton lied to Utah officials, saying that creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 was not imminent, and never consulted with them about it until the day it was formed.

Bennett said its boundaries were drawn "so wildly that they had picked up the football field of a high school. One of my constituents found his front driveway in the national monument."

He added, "Is it now so sacred a land that we cannot take the football field out and turn it back to the high school? Is it so sacred a piece of land that we can't give the man his driveway back?" (He asked that rhetorically since such adjustments have already been made by Congress.)

Bennett said coal reserves in Grand Staircase-Escalante are rich and vast. He said they are low in sulfur, which would reduce air pollution. And while coal seams 6 feet wide are considered good, seams there are "16 feet high. It runs back from where the mine mouth will be, over 160 miles. There is enough energy in that coal to heat and light the city of San Francisco for 300 years."

But Durbin said the country has so many other coal reserves that those in Grand Staircase are not needed. "I have three times more coal in my state of Illinois than the senator from Utah believes he has in his state," he said.

Durbin also said all the estimated oil and gas in monuments created by Clinton would provide only a couple of weeks' supply for the nation, so it makes sense to leave them alone.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., also said he hiked to Upper Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and "my experience is that this monument is a spectacular place and one with now tremendous recreational value and use. It should be preserved that way."

Bennett said that while some such areas are truly spectacular, most of Grand Staircase-Escalante is not, and is covered by sagebrush that looks like other BLM land. He said many visitors come to look at it once but never return because it is not special.

"We have seen two counties be destroyed economically since the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument," Bennett said. "They were not very viable to begin with and have no tourism. With all of the publicity, there is no tourism."

Hansen previously charged that such amendments are being pushed by members from other coal-producing states — where coal usually has much more pollution-causing sulfur — to prevent development of low-sulfur coal in Utah.

E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com