WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary James Watt declared Friday he is pushing the nation toward energy independence with massive increases in coal, oil and gas leasing on federal lands and in offshore areas.
In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Watt vowed 1983 will be a year in which his sweeping changes in resource and environmental policies are driven 'down into the system.'
Watt's address at the chamber's national headquarters was a fast-paced midterm assessment of his department, using colorful maps and charts to support his argument that the Reagan administration has given the nation greater energy security while upgrading national parks and improving protection for endangered species.
'Today, all federal lands -- the national parks, the wetlands, the wildlife refuges, the wilderness areas -- are all better managed and in better shape than they were two years ago,' he asserted.
'We came to Washington to bring about dramatic change. We came to introduce a whole new concept of stewardship of national resources.'
Environmental groups that have bitterly fought the controversial Cabinet member for two years immediately took issue with his report.
'James Watt's assessment of the state of the public lands is sheer fantasy,' argued Charles Clusen, deputy executive director of the Wilderness Society. 'At best, Watt is the engineer of the biggest giveaway of America's natural resources in the last 100 years.'
Clusen charged Watt has 'absolutely refused to deal with' the threat of development near national parks. 'His idea of improving national parks is to construct new roads and buildings and then say the parks are better off,' he said.
Watt focused much of his address on increased efforts to develop energy sources from public lands and offshore areas.
He released figures showing his department leased 150 percent more acres of 'onshore' lands for oil and gas development in 1981 than in 1980, and issued 30 percent more oil and gas drilling permits in 1981 and 1982 than in 1979 and 1980.
The report also showed his department issued 55 coal leases on 118,663 acres of federal land in 1981-82, compared to 26 leases on 19,938 acres during 1979-80.
'But I'm a piker compared to (former Interior Secretary Stewart) Udall,' he quipped, noting that in 1968, the Interior Department leased more than twice as much coal on federal lands than in 1982.
The leasing in 1968 was done before many major environmental laws were enacted -- laws that 'brought coal leasing to a virtual standstill,' Watt contended.
Clusen argued that the massive energy leasing runs counter to 'the balanced mandate between resource development and environmental protection that was practiced by previous secretaries of the interior, both Republican and Democratic.'
But Watt predicted that in the future '85 percent of our crude energy' will come from these federal lands.