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Briefs (right)

Oil Companies Might Avoid
$7 Billion In Public Royalties

By Edmund L. Andrews

The federal government is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, an estimated $7 billion over five years.

New projections, buried in the Interior Department’s just-published budget plan, anticipate that the government will let companies pump about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government.

Based on the administration figures, the government will give up more than $7 billion in payments between now and 2011. The companies are expected to get the largess, known as royalty relief, even though the administration assumes that oil prices will remain above $50 a barrel throughout that period.

Administration officials say that the benefits are dictated by laws and regulations that date back to 1996, when energy prices were relatively low and Congress wanted to encourage more exploration and drilling in the high-cost, high-risk deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We need to remember the primary reason that incentives are given,” said Johnnie M. Burton, director of the Minerals Management Service. “It’s not to make more money, necessarily. It’s to make more oil, more gas, because production of fuel for our nation is essential to our economy and essential to our people.”

Judge Says U.S.Can’t Transfer Detainee In Iraq

By Neil A. Lewis

A federal judge ruled Monday that the Bush administration cannot transfer a U.S. citizen held by the military in Iraq to Iraqi civilian custody.

In his ruling, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington rejected arguments made last week by Justice Department lawyers that the courts had no jurisdiction because the man, Shawqi Ahmad Omar, was not technically in U.S. custody. In his ruling, Urbina minimized as “legalistic” the government’s argument that Omar was actually in the custody of the 27-nation Multi-National Force in Iraq, of which the United States was only a part.

Omar, 44, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested in Baghdad over a year ago by military authorities. He has not been charged or allowed to consult with a lawyer.

Lawyers who have brought a lawsuit on behalf of Omar’s wife say that he went to Iraq as a businessman to obtain contracts in the reconstruction of the country.

Bald Eagle Nears Perch Off
The Endangered List

By Felicity Barringer

The bald eagle, a national symbol of majesty from the country’s earliest days, moved several steps closer on Monday to leaving the list of threatened or endangered species.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced a series of decisions toward declaring the bird’s population safely restored, effectively jump-starting a process that stalled several years ago.

An effort begun in 1999 to remove the eagle from the federal lists became bogged down in debates over whether two other laws protecting the bird would actually prove more onerous for developers and landowners than the Endangered Species Act, once that law was no longer applicable.

The Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday issued new voluntary guidelines for ways to protect eagles’ nests and feeding grounds, and it defined some regulatory terms that determine the protection of the eagles under existing laws, like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In doing so, the service signaled its willingness to finish the task of delisting the eagles.

Environmental groups and agency officials held an unusual joint news conference by telephone to announce their progress. The chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service, H. Dale Hall, was joined by representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense.

All hailed the return of the eagle in the continental United States, where there were a total of 413 breeding pairs in 1963, according to Hall, and where there are 7,066 pairs today. Timothy Male, a senior ecologist with Environmental Defense, said his organization’s poll of state wildlife agencies put the number of breeding pairs higher, at 9,100.

Bode Miller Ready to Race

By Bill Pennington

Bode Miller became the focus of the United States’ failure to win a medal in the Olympic downhill, but he will nonetheless again go to the start gate Tuesday as one of the pre-race favorites for a gold medal in the men’s combined.

The combined, which is one run down a shortened downhill course combined with the results of two runs on a typical Olympic slalom course, is Miller’s best event of the five he has entered in the Winter Games. The downhill is contested in the afternoon and the slaloms will be held at night, with the times of the three runs added together. The lowest-total time wins.

If Miller can win a medal Tuesday, it will be a record-setting accomplishment. Miller, who won two silver medals in the 2002 Olympics, would become the first American alpine skier to win three Olympic medals.

On Monday, Miller skipped the combined training, a downhill run. But he was not alone in his absence. Several of the downhillers, like Michael Walchhofer of Austria, the silver-medal winner on Sunday, did not bother to practice at the downhill course Monday. Most of the top skiers have already taken four runs on the course between practice and Sunday’s race.

Walchhofer is among the contenders in the combined, but his countryman Benjamin Raich is Miller’s chief competition. Raich was the world’s top-ranked slalom and combined racer last season and his downhill skills are improving.