U.S. Senate Confirms Kempthorne to Head Interior
WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate confirmed President Bush's nominee, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, as interior secretary Friday, after several lawmakers lifted procedural holds that allowed the vote to proceed.
Kempthorne replaces Gale Norton and will be the 49th interior secretary, charged with overseeing federal lands.
The Senate confirmed Kempthorne in a voice vote after voting 85-8 to suspend debate on his nomination.
The Interior Department manages national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands, which account for 1 acre out of every 5 acres in the United States.
As Interior secretary, Kempthorne will oversee federally owned lands both onshore and in the Gulf of Mexico which oil and gas companies lease in exchange for royalty payments.
Kempthorne's confirmation had been snagged in a debate over allowing more oil and natural gas production in federal waters off Florida, where drilling has been banned for 25 years.
Lawmakers are debating a proposal to open parts of "Lease Sale 181" off Florida in exchange for sharing more federal royalty revenues with states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
One senator who had blocked a final vote on Kempthorne, Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, said she dropped her objections after "significant progress" was made toward a deal that would divert some royalty payments from the U.S. Treasury to her state. That money would be used to repair hurricane damage and buttress the state's eroding coastline.
"The (natural) gas is coming from Louisiana and if you want more if it then ... help us save our state from washing away into the Gulf (of Mexico)," Landrieu said. "If not, then go find your gas somewhere else."
In 2007, Kempthorne will oversee a round of negotiations for leases from 2007-2012 for energy production in the offshore waters of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), which could include the controversial Florida tract.
Bush says he favors more drilling but will not support leases that are less than 100 miles from the Florida coast.
Over 79 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- more than three years of domestic consumption at current levels -- lie under OCS waters where leasing is now banned.
Federal offshore drilling is now allowed only in Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.
Kempthorne could also oversee a process of leasing land in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies if Congress approves drilling there.
First elected Idaho governor in 1998, Kempthorne is also a former senator and one-time mayor of his state's capital, Boise. He had announced already that he was not seeking re-election as governor.