[This story was originally published as the cover story in the June 13th issue of Human Events newspaper.]
The plight of the prairie chickens, smelt fish and dunes sagebrush lizards is not just a policy cause for environmentalists anymore, but the weapon of choice in a war on jobs by the Obama Administration, say critics in Congress.
The policies in effect at the Interior Department, now led by Secretary Ken Salazar, are supposed to protect endangered species against certain annihilation. But they’re also turning farmlands into dust bowls and running oil and gas development off the land, out of the water and out of the country.
And in some cases, even eco-friendly energy development is getting the cold shoulder.
“I think they have constructed the most effective job-killing machine in the history of the country,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R.-Calif.).
“If Salazar’s job is to kill jobs, then he gets an A plus,” added Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) “His department has killed more jobs in the U.S. than any other federal agency.”
California’s Central Valley struggles for water because some 200 billion gallons are diverted to the Pacific Ocean for the benefit of the Delta smelt, Nunes said.
That man-made drought has idled more than a quarter of a million acres of farmland and, with thousands of farmers out of work, the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country at more than 20%, Nunes said.
“The goal of the Obama political appointees is all about stopping capitalism and stopping job creation. And the halls of Interior are filled with environmental extremists,” Nunes said.
Farmers in the Central Valley grow 300 different crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, peaches, apples, olives and nuts.
Once they exported their carrots to China, but now farmers stand in food lines to get carrots from China, McClintock said.
“It’s an all-out war on our way of life, that’s what is going on,” said Rep. Steve Pearce (R.-N.M.), chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus.
Earlier this spring, lawmakers introduced legislation to block funding for the Interior Department to use to add the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie chicken to the Endangered Species List.
Lead by Pearce, they argue that such listings would put a de facto ban on oil and gas development in Texas and New Mexico because of exaggerated precautions to protect the creatures’ habitats.
“Both of these [listings] will significantly impact the jobs in our area,” Pearce said.
“The extreme view is that if you disturb the ground, the lizard might not walk across it,” Pearce said. “They say agriculture disturbs the ground, ranching and farming disturbs the ground and you can’t drive a ranch vehicle across the dunes because the lizard might not walk through the track.”
“They don’t want the oil rigs running day or night during breeding season because it might disrupt the breeding. They just don’t see nature as nature is,” Pearce said.
“This will play out in ridiculous fashion,” Pearce predicted.
“It’s this sort of quasi-science not based in fact that makes people mad. They [the Interior bureaucrats] are doing it because their agenda is to shut down as much oil and gas production as they can.”
“But it’s full employment for the environmentalists’ lawyers,” Pearce said.
Salazar served as Colorado’s attorney general before he was elected to the Senate in 2005. In the middle of his first term, President Obama nominated Salazar to head the Interior Department and he took the helm in 2009.
Salazar’s opposition to oil exploration and development became evident to Congress during a July 31, 2008, debate on the Senate floor over a bill to allow drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf.
Salazar objected over and over as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) attempted to set price triggers to allow more exploration there when gas reached $4.50 a gallon, $5 a gallon, $7.50 a gallon and, finally, $10 a gallon.
“It is a phantom solution,” Salazar argued as he objected to each price trigger.
After his appointment, Salazar pledged in December 2010 to put even more areas in the Outer Continental Shelf off limits to energy development.
The American Petroleum Institute estimates that decision alone will cost 75,000 jobs and $91 billion in government revenue.
Many Costly Decisions
According to a December 2009 economic impact report by the Interior Department, it supported 650,000 jobs in the oil, gas and coal sectors. Coming in second, the agency supports nearly 316,000 jobs in recreation and tourism and nearly 198,000 jobs in irrigation water.
Other costly decisions by Salazar and the Obama Administration include:
The withdrawal of 61 oil and gas leases in Montana as part of a settlement over climate change.
Withdrawal of 24,000 acres in Wyoming from oil and gas leases.
Withdrawal of 77 oil and gas leases in Utah.
Delayed oil shale research and development.
Prohibition on energy production on three million acres of public lands.
Those decisions, documented by the House Natural Resources Committee, will cost millions of dollars to taxpayers and eliminate an as yet unknown number of jobs, the panel said.
The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In announcing the President’s budget on Valentine’s Day, Salazar said the spending plan would continue the agency’s New Energy Frontier strategy intended to create jobs, reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and oil imports and reduce carbon impacts.
“With this disciplined budget we are making necessary investments in key priorities and ensuring Interior missions can help sustain economic growth and job creation and continue to provide critical services …” Salazar said.
Interestingly, Salazar and the Obama Administration have also been unfriendly to the sort of energy production that is supported by many environmentalists: wind and solar.
Efforts to harness the wind off of Nantucket Sound, opposed by the Kennedy clan because it obstructs the view from their vacation compound, have been halted by the administration’s proposal to list the area on the National Register of Historic Places.
The administration also limited 30 million acres of public land with solar potential, to development within only 670,000 acres.
A de facto moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on the heels of the Deepwater Horizon spill was meant to protect the ocean environment, but industry officials say it has decimated the region.
“They’ve done more economic damage to the Gulf Coast with the moratorium than the blowout produced,” McClintock said.
During testimony March 17 in front of a House Energy and Commerce panel, Louisiana State University professor of finance Joseph Mason testified that stalled development in the Gulf has cost 8,000 jobs regionally to as many as 19,000 nationally.
“Salazar has put our employment potential in irons,” said Jim Adams, president and CEO of the Offshore Marine Service Administration.
“The most compelling thing to understand is why this administration is pursuing unemployment, both in the Gulf and nationally,” Adams said.
“They want everyone to drive hybrids and to make it cost competitive, they need fuel prices at $6 or $7 a gallon,” Adams said.
“They are picking winners and losers. If you work in domestic oil and gas, you have been selected as a loser by the administration. And that is just sad because the quality of life in the Gulf is based upon the fact that tourism, fish, oil and gas really can work together for a strong regional and national economy. But in this case, the administration has clearly decided that it doesn’t want our sector of the economy to thrive,” Adams said.
“Their policies have sidelined our industry,” Adams said.
“They are failing to fulfill their responsibility. They are failing in that charge intentionally and with pride. And that’s disappointing. Why not lead in a restoration of the industry that employees so many thousands. It’s mind boggling,” Adams said.
Rather than promoting the development of vast underdeveloped public lands and creating new jobs, observers say the number of jobs created is actually declining.
“The result is they are displacing a world-class workforce and the end result is clear: They want to see less domestic exploration, which means less production, which means fewer jobs. And the jobs don’t stop at the gulf,” said Adams.
As the jobs decline in the gulf, so do steel jobs in Pennsylvania to make drill bits and the jobs building cat diesel engines in Peoria, Ill.
The U.S. used to be the “gold standard” when oil companies considered the political risk of operating in the U.S., Adams said.
Now they are taking huge risks by moving their operations to less stable countries like Brazil, Egypt, the Congo, Mongolia, the Middle East and other third-world nations with unstable regimes.
Since the so-called moratorium, 70 vessels have left the gulf region.
Adams along with numerous Republican lawmakers were outraged when Obama went to Brazil in March and offered to help that country expand its oil reserves.
“And when you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers,” Obama said.
That’s the kind of leadership, Adams said, that is needed at home in the U.S.