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Salazar blasts critics of U.S. energy policy

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday fired back at critics who claim he's not supportive enough of domestic energy production, saying their accusations have the same "poison and substance of election-year politics."

Energy groups have said the current administration is focusing on clean energy sources to the detriment of fossil fuels. This comes as a stark contrast to complaints from environmentalists that the previous administration was too cozy with big oil companies.

"We believe that our oil and gas leasing program is robust," Salazar told reporters on a conference call. "But you wouldn't know it if you listened to the untruths coming out of some of the corners of the oil and gas industry."

The remarks came after the secretary announced plans to hold 38 oil and natural gas lease sales for U.S. public lands in 2010, including acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska for the first time in nearly two years.

Trade groups for the oil and gas industry have blamed the Obama administration and Salazar himself for a slowdown in drilling, and they claim public lands have been withheld from oil and gas development.

By placing an emphasis on developing sources such as wind and solar power, the department is saying "we ought to have lots more really expensive energy," said Daniel Kish of the Institute for Energy Research, a group critical of the administration's energy policy.

The Interior Department has made some 55 million acres available to oil and natural gas development since January through 32 onshore lease sales and two offshore sales.

The sales generated more than $931 million. But the Institute for Energy Research said sales are a far cry from revenue generated in previous years, prompting criticism from the oil and gas industry as leasing activity is significantly down from years past.

The department acknowledged it is undergoing a review of its leasing program and reforming an agency marred in the past with scandal and questionable tactics. But claims that the oil and gas sector are being overlooked are misleading, it says.

"The reason there is uncertainty is because of the fact that in the prior administration there were shortcuts taken," Salazar said, referring to rushed leasing procedures.

Nearly half of leases sold get tied up in protests and litigation from citizen and environmental groups. The department is working to avoid these costly and time-consuming setbacks by improving the leasing process.

To claims that leases are not being made available, Salazar said, "The fact of the matter is, large parts of the public domain have been made available to oil and gas companies for leasing, and those places are not being developed."

There are 26 million acres of public land and 28 million acres of ocean already leased to energy companies that stand idle, he noted.

Mike Chiropolos, lands program director for Western Resource Advocates, said, "It's laughable to try to point the problem at Interior lease processing."

Low gas prices and the ailing economy were among issues he cited for reduced leasing activity.

"We want oil and gas companies to engage with us and to be our partners in our energy future," Salazar said, but the department will continue to move forward with its energy plan.

(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin)