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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he can't reopen a decision about leases to drill for oil and gas near national parks in Utah until Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett releases a hold on his department's nominees.
Salazar months ago scrapped 77 of the drilling leases that the Bush administration left on his desk and said Friday they were too close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks -- the parcels had already been put on hold by a federal lawsuit.
Salazar said he's willing to reconsider if Bennett, R-Utah, releases a hold that makes it harder for his nominees to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
"I can't get to it until I have people to work with," he told reporters.
Salazar, who brought his "listening" tour to Salt Lake City on Friday, got an earful from some oilmen upset over his voiding of the leases.
One of the aggrieved bidders, Daniel Gunnell, said Salazar was beholden to "Hollywood and environmental extremists" in a veiled reference to Robert Redford, who condemned the December auction.
"Everybody has my ear," replied Salazar, who resigned his U.S. Senate seat from Colorado to join President Barack Obama's cabinet. "I will listen."
Gunnell, managing partner of Twilight Resources LLC of Orem, and a business partner lost 28 drilling parcels to Salazar's decision.
The partner, Kimball Hodges of Par Five Exploration LLC of Orem, said the government returned a check for $600,000 for the parcels.
"Our problem is the leases we won are not being issued," Hodges said.
Bennett, among other demands, has insisted Salazar launch an environmental review of the 77 leases that could justify putting some of them up for auction again.
Bennett defended his hold on Hilary Chandler Tompkins, a nominee of President Barack Obama for solicitor or chief legal adviser at the Department of the Interior; and David Hayes, who if confirmed would be the deputy Interior secretary. The hold means it would take 60 votes of the Senate to overcome Bennett's objection.
"DOI keeps changing the rules. It changed the rules on the oil and gas leases and now is changing the rules on the department's review of the secretary's unilateral decision to cancel 77 oil and gas leases in Utah," Bennett told The Associated Press in a statement Friday.
Salazar said he tried to reach out to Bennett but hasn't heard back, and invited the senator to join him at Friday's "community" meeting. It was held at the Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that conducts the oil-and-gas auctions for drilling on public lands.
Bennett didn't show up, but released a copy of a letter he sent Friday to Salazar outlining his demands. He told a radio station in Salt Lake City that Salazar was driving natural-gas producers out of Utah.
Stephen Bloch, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said gas producers are leaving or plugging wells because of the plunging market price for natural gas, not because of any government action.
Oil and gas producers have plenty of land in Utah they can develop. They are sitting on three million acres of leases on public land that have yet to be developed, with another 1 million acres under production, Bloch said.
"That's the reality. It has nothing to do with this argument the senator is making," he said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)