By JOHN HEILPRIN
WASHINGTON, (AP) -- Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said Thursday he's eager to press President Bush's expansion of oil and gas drilling offshore and on federal lands as an antidote to $3-a-gallon gasoline.
"This nation needs to be able to produce its energy supply to the extent that we continue to lessen foreign dependence," the Interior secretary nominee told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "This is an issue of economic security as well as national security."
Kempthorne — who is serving his second term as Idaho governor — called it a "great responsibility" to manage public lands and waters that produce 30 percent of the nation's domestic supply of energy. While pushing for more oil and gas development offshore and on federal lands, he promised to re-examine the low royalty rates many drillers are paying the government despite record prices.
"If in fact those prices go up, then there should not be the royalty relief," he said.
Kempthorne, 54, would replace Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who announced her resignation March 10 after five years of running a department that manages one-fifth of the nation's land.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., reminded Kempthorne his duties would be "not the secretary of energy" but to serve as "steward-in-chief of our nation's land and resources."
"There's been criticism in the last several years of the Department of Interior, in particular, that there has been too much emphasis on commercial exploitation of resources, and not enough stewardship of the land and resources," Bingaman said.
Other Democrats have sought to use Kempthorne's nomination as a bargaining chip to stop opening new areas in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling, or to gain a share of the proceeds for their states.
In his testimony, Kempthorne parted with President Bush over a plan to raise $250 million over five years by selling 125,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management's 261 million acres — a plan Congress has all but rejected.
"The selling of public lands for deficit reduction — I do not favor that," Kempthorne said.
A committee vote is planned for next week on forwarding Kempthorne's nomination for full Senate consideration. Kempthorne was a senator from 1993 through 1998 and the Senate rarely rejects a former member for the Cabinet.
"It's our hope we can get you quickly confirmed," said Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. "We can't afford to leave the department without permanent leadership."
Kempthorne parried questions — softballs, mainly — on everything from endangered species to maintenance needs at national parks. He said he is agreeable to proposed legislative changes in the Endangered Species Act and thinks a new system of tracking park needs will help clear a maintenance backlog.
But Democrats brought up the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal corruption charges surrounding his lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes seeking to win or block Interior Department approval for casino licenses.
"It's going to be important for you to go in there and drain the swamp," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. He then asked Kempthorne about tightening ethics rules at the department and whether he would recuse himself from handling any issues.
Kempthorne promised to have an ethics talk his first day on the new job. He said he'd probably recuse himself for a year from some things he handled in Idaho. After the hearing, he nodded when asked if those might include wolf, grizzly bear and salmon issues.