Tribes exempt from pause in U.S. federal drilling program -official

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The Washington Monument is seen in an undated U.S. Department of Interior photo taken from a National Park Service helicopter in Washington released on President's Day, February 17, 2014. REUTERS/National Park Service/Handout via Reuters

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Jan 25 (Reuters) - Native American tribes are exempt from the Biden administration's temporary suspension of U.S. oil and gas leasing and permitting on federal lands, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Interior said on Monday.

The clarification comes after an oil-producing tribe in Utah last week asked Interior for an exemption from the 60-day pause, saying it would hit its economy and sovereignty.

"The approval process for oil and gas activities does not apply to tribal and individual trust lands," Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry said in an email, referring to the secretarial order issued on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden's first day in office.

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The order, which strips Interior Department agencies and bureaus of their authority to issue drilling leases and permits, appeared to be a first step in delivering on Biden's campaign pledge to ban new drilling on federal acreage permanently.

But the immediate backlash from the Ute Indian Tribe reflects the financial strain some communities will face from a freeze in the government's fossil fuel permitting program. While some tribes opposed fossil fuel development, others are drilling the vast oil and coal reserves on their land.

In a letter to acting U.S. Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega last week, the Ute tribe said energy development was critical to providing services to its members.

An attorney for the Ute tribal counsel did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Biden's pick to lead the Interior Department, Deb Haaland, is poised to become the first Native American to head a cabinet agency once she is confirmed by Congress. She has said she would prioritize climate change and conservation and has previously opposed drilling in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas.

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Reporting by Nichola Groom and Valerie Volcovici Editing by Marguerita Choy

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