WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne appeared headed for a smooth confirmation process Thursday except for a single potential stumbling block: energy.
Energy questions dominated a Senate hearing on the Idaho governor's appointment, and at least two senators have threatened to delay his confirmation pending resolution of gas and oil drilling issues in the Gulf of Mexico.
Thursday's hearing emphasized the burgeoning importance of domestic energy production in the face of rising gasoline prices, and the crucial role played by the Interior secretary as the manager of federal lands with the potential for millions of barrels of oil.
"You might as secretary of the Interior produce more energy for America's consumers than would the secretary of Energy," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). "It is a unique time and it's a bit of an anomaly as to where we are in energy production in this country."
Kempthorne dodged many questions, saying he needed more time to study the issues. But the Republican former senator, who has received low marks from environmental groups, said he believed in the need for a balance between conservation and energy production.
He suggested that he would continue an initiative begun under Gale A. Norton, the previous Interior secretary, to speed up the processing of applications for new oil and gas drilling on Western lands.
"Economic vitality, a positive environment -- they are not mutually exclusive," said Kempthorne, 54, who went mountain biking with President Bush in Idaho before becoming the nominee in March. "We do need to have reliable sources of energy."
Kempthorne was greeted warmly by his former colleagues, Democrats and Republicans. All but a handful of the members of the Senate Energy Committee assured him that they would recommend him next week for final confirmation to the full Senate, a vote that might come before Memorial Day.
Before then, however, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) have threatened to delay Kempthorne's nomination over different -- though related -- concerns over gas and oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nelson is concerned over a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Energy Committee, to open for drilling 4 million acres of ocean floor off Florida's coast known as Lease Sale 181. Nelson and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) want to shrink the size of the drilling area.
Landrieu is seeking to have more revenue from offshore oil drilling -- including any new projects in Lease Sale 181 -- returned to states rather than the federal government. Louisiana, which has by far the greatest number of oil wells off its coast, would stand to benefit most from such legislation, which has been opposed by the Bush administration.
Domenici, who was meeting with Landrieu on Thursday afternoon, seemed hopeful for a solution. He said he was anxious to install a new Interior secretary in light of a host of pressing issues at the Interior Department.
The secretary is in charge of managing 504 million acres of federal land -- a fifth of the land in the United States -- including national parks, wildlife areas and forests.
The broad reach of the department was on display Thursday as senators pressed Kempthorne on a host of local issues, including predatory owls killing spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, opening the upper reaches of the Statue of Liberty to visitors and the route of a new bridge in North Carolina.
The Interior secretary also deals with permits for oil and natural gas extraction and offshore drilling. Energy projects on federal land supply about 30% of U.S. production, according to the department. "This is a big issue," Domenici said.
Environmental groups have been muted in their opposition to Kempthorne, even though he received a rating of zero from the League of Conservation Voters during five of his six years in the Senate, ending in 1998.
Kempthorne has also been criticized for supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for trying to weaken protections in the Endangered Species Act.
With Kempthorne's nomination all but assured, environmental groups said they were preparing for future battles.
"The question is do you put a lot of energy into raising concerns during the nomination, or do you begin the process of trying to monitor and do the outreach you need to do?" said Maribeth Oakes, the land protection director for the Sierra Club. "That's the route we're going to take."