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Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt pressed President Barack Obama on Tuesday to set aside an acre of public land for conservation for every acre that is leased for oil and gas development.
Babbitt, who served under former President Bill Clinton for eight years, said establishing the “one-to-one” principle is a modest action that would help repair Obama’s lagging legacy on conservation.
“Americans expect their public lands to supply more energy for today, but they also expect more parks, wilderness and open space for tomorrow,” Babbitt said in a speech at the National Press Club. “And that balance, between development and land conservation, is not being maintained.”
Over the past four years, he said, industry has leased more than 6 million acres compared with the 2.6 million acres that have been permanently protected. “In the Obama era, land conservation is again falling behind,” he said. “This lopsided public-land administration in favor of the oil and gas industry shouldn’t continue.”
A spokeswoman at the Interior Department said it long sought to balance its “all-of-the-above” energy strategy with conservation policies and made “unprecedented investments to protect and restore vital lands and waters that support local economies.”
Babbitt acknowledged that Obama “starts with one significant handicap: Unlike his predecessors, he cannot count on even minimal cooperation from a Congress that is more interested in throwing itself off metaphorical cliffs than protecting any real ones.”
So Obama will need to rely on his executive powers, such as the Antiquities Act of 1906, he said, which allows the president to designate national monuments and restrict the use of certain public lands without congressional approval.
Babbitt made a similar plea to Obama when he spoke at the press club in June 2011 on the 105th anniversary of the act. During that speech, he mocked “munchkins” at the White House for backing down from what he dubbed an assault from Republicans over the issue.
On Tuesday, Babbitt was noticeably more benign in his comments toward the administration, including praising Obama for new fuel-efficiency standards, doubling the production of renewable energy and “historic action” to limit carbon-dioxide emissions.
He praised outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s moves to protect millions of acres of wilderness and hundreds of miles of scenic rivers, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for using the Antiquities Act to create four national monuments.
“The president’s record on conservation to date, however, is only a beginning,” he said. “In a second term, he must extend that work with the same clarity and vigor that he devoted to climate, energy and conservation in his inaugural address.”
Babbitt centered his verbal venom on an oil and gas industry that “will be insulted by the suggestion that the public’s use of public land should be on equal ground with their profits” and “right-wing Republicans in the House [who] will take up Big Oil’s cause and will again call for a fire sale of public lands for corporate use.”
Republicans have been doing this for decades, he said, and Obama should not try to strike deals with them. “The idea that you can civilize these people by sort of making concessions is entirely wrong,” he said. “All it does is up their demands for more.”
He also recommended suspending quarterly lease sales to spur Congress to act on stalled conservation bills. “I think [that] will provide a pretty good incentive for the Congress and all those lobbyists hovering over the Congress to say it’s time to act on pending conservation legislation,” he said.
He criticized the previous Congress as the first since World War II “not to protect a single new acre of public land as a park, wilderness area or national monument.”
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources’ Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee, criticized Babbitt’s proposal and said far more acres already were set aside for conservation than for oil and gas leases.
“Instead of villainizing American energy developers, [former] Secretary Babbitt should accept the fact that energy development, multiple use and conservation are not mutually exclusive activities,” Bishop said in a statement.
Babbitt also said Obama should help advance conservation bills if they remain stalled on Capitol Hill, such as California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to protect more than a million acres in the Mojave Desert. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the president to work with Sen. Feinstein to examine the use of executive orders as an alternative pathway” to legislation, Babbitt said. Those pending congressional bills are “the low-hanging fruit” that have already been scrutinized and can be acted upon.
This is “the mandate of the American people when they rejected” Mitt Romney’s energy plan, he said. “And we all know which energy plan the voters chose at the polls.”