By Zack Colman - 06/01/13 03:02 PM EDT
Environmental lobbyists are pressing President Obama to turn more western lands into national monuments to prevent oil-and-gas companies from drilling there.
The Sierra Club is leading the charge and is sweetening its message with political sugar, saying Obama could thereby help Democrats win House and Senate seats in midterm elections year.
“We think there’s real opportunities for them to do additional monument designations by the midterm elections and that it’s a positive political thing for the administration and for senators and congressmen,” Dan Chu, who is leading this program, told The Hill in a recent interview.
Chu pointed to Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is up for reelection in 2014.
Udall, a first-term senator, has sponsored legislation to provide permanent protection from oil and drilling for the 22,000-acre Browns Canyon, which runs along the Arkansas River. GOP congressmen from his state have proven resistant to other public lands protection measures, making it unlikely to become law.
“My sense is that if you thought that was a political negative, he wouldn’t be pushing for it right now when he’s running for reelection,” Chu said. “I think he’s read the tea leaves and feels like that’s actually helpful for him in areas of the state where voters are important for him.”
Chu argues the West is becoming “less purple and more blue” because of an influx of Latino and younger voters. The Sierra Club aims to marshal those voting blocs to get new national monuments in New Mexico and Colorado.
Chu said Latino and young voters care more about conservation than about energy drilling, citing a poll for the Sierra Club and National Council of La Raza that said 69 percent of Latino voters support increasing the number of national monuments.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government affairs with the Western Energy Alliance, said that its polling suggests 74 percent of Latinos favor boosting oil-and-gas production.
Sgamma said that oil-and-gas drilling can coexist with conservation, saying that, "The Sierra Club is offering a false choice to young and Latino voters."
The American Petroleum Institute (API) argues jobs are the top priority for all Americans, including Latino and black voters.
The trade group released a report last December that said "with the right policies," blacks and Latinos could expect to fill 166,000 new jobs in the oil-and-gas sector by 2020.
"Research shows that half of our industry will turn over in the next seven to 10 years, and with the expansion of shale energy and other oil and natural gas development, we have an unprecedented opportunity for job growth across the country that will benefit Americans from every community," API CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement.
Obama has used the Antiquities Act six times in the last year to designate national monuments.
Just before last year’s election, Obama designated the Cesar Chavez National Monument in Keene, Calif., in a move meant to appeal to Latino voters.
In March, Obama designated five monuments in one day, including the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland.
Obama had previously only used the law to designate monuments three times.
The White House denies the more recent designations represent a change in course.
Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said the administration wants to see grassroots support for monument designations before acting.
“DOI, as part of the Obama administration, is certainly committed to the conservation of these designations. But it’s rooted in the partnership of these local communities,” she said.
The Sierra Club is working with a host of environmental groups — including the Wilderness Society, the Audubon Society and the Center for Biological Diversity — along with the National Council of La Raza and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples to foster local backing for monuments.
Congressional Republicans have pushed for more drilling on public lands, and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said decisions on monuments shouldn’t be imposed by Obama.
“Chairman Hastings firmly believes that additions to the National Park System and major land-use decisions that impact local communities and economies should be the result of careful public review and a vote by Congress. It should not be a unilateral decision imposed by the President under a centuries-old outdated law,” Mallory Micetich, a committee spokeswoman, told The Hill in an email.
Environmentalists argue the only way to enforce conservation is to get the executive branch to make designations.
Bentley Johnson, legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation’s public lands campaign, said his group prefers to work at the local level to build momentum with congressional delegations. But that has proven relatively fruitless in recent years.
The standstill on getting lands protected through the legislative route might have pushed the White House to go it alone in recent months, he said.