Rep. Chris Cannon is interested in making energy development easier in national monuments. But he got such a strong negative reaction when he floated an idea about that Wednesday that he is retooling his proposed legislation.
National monuments are created by presidents under authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. In September 1996, then-President Bill Clinton cited the act in creating the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
Cannon reasoned that if a president could create a monument with a stroke of a pen, then the president should be able to open the monuments to energy development. So the Utah Republican floated the idea Wednesday during a meeting of the House Resources Committee.
He discussed giving presidents the discretionary authority to open to development land that had been protected by previous presidents. "It's about making public lands available," he said.
The provision would not include national parks. Unlike monuments, which can be designated by a president's unilateral action, parks are created by acts of Congress.
"There is a huge amount of oil in the Intermountain West," Cannon said. "Instead of 1,500 or 2,000 oil and gas permits a year, we want 10 times that amount."
Other members of the committee, mostly Democrats, gave Cannon a hard time about his ideas concerning amending the Antiquities Act. "It was harsh," he said of the reaction.
So Cannon pulled back on the amendment. He would negotiate with the other members, he said, to make it palatable to them. Perhaps monuments could be opened to thermal, wind and solar power development.
Meanwhile, the idea is still floating out there that Cannon wants to make national monuments — including the seven in Utah — more accessible to development to meet the energy needs of American consumers.
Predictably, Utah interests were divided in the reactions.
Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said that "as evidenced by recent national events, we're in a pretty precarious position, energy-wise, in this country."
He said actions to increase domestic oil and gas supplies would be extremely beneficial, not only for Utahns but also for other citizens of the country.
"Clearly, there are some places within national monuments that should not be developed," he said. "But in these large geographic areas, we as an industry feel like there are areas that can and should at least be explored for energy resources."
That could be done in an environmentally sensitive way, protecting the land while still advancing America's energy independence, he said.
"Obviously, there would be a lot of discussion and debate over that kind of proposal," Peacock said. But America needs to look at alternatives to the present way of doing business, he said.
Development in national monuments "seems grossly short-sighted," said Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Whenever the Antiquities Act has been used to protect land, he said, eventually "those decisions have come to be appreciated across the West."
That is true from Grand Staircase National Monument to Capitol Reef, Grand Teton and Canyonlands national parks, he said.
While the present Congress has demonstrated a willingness to roll back environmental laws, he said, "I don't think they would go this far."
Richard Mayol, communications director for the Grand Canyon Trust, which is interested in the entire Colorado Plateau, including Utah, said allowing development in monuments would "exploit the current energy crunch and allow big oil to stockpile leases while the getting is good.
"More than 42 million acres of federal public lands are currently under lease for oil and gas," he continued, "and as of 2004, only 11.6 million acres were in production."
Mayol, contacted by telephone at the group's Flagstaff, Ariz., headquarters, said the trust understands that America "has a need for new exploration now," but charged that the oil and gas industry has a huge surplus of areas where it has permission to explore, and has not been drilling.
He added that he would like to see Congress focus their attention on renewable resources and not oil and gas.