By Amanda Becker and Valerie Volcovici
DOVER, N.H. (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said on Thursday she would seek to phase out fossil fuel extraction and increase fees on companies operating on public lands in a way that does not disrupt the economy if elected to the White House, irking environmental activists seeking stronger environmental policies.
Clinton said she is committed to addressing climate change, which she called an "existential threat," but said it would not be responsible to halt oil, natural gas and coal extraction on federal lands abruptly.
"We still have to run our economy, we still have to turn on the lights," Clinton told a town hall meeting.
Clinton tried to strike a pragmatic tone about her approach to energy and climate policy, details she has yet to fully flesh-out in public, even as she was called out by protesters for receiving donations from energy companies and for what they said was weak climate change policy.
When questioned by Giselle Hart, an activist and student at the University of New Hampshire, and interrupted by a handful of protesters, Clinton said while it would be easy to make bold environmental statements, those promises would be empty given political realities.
"I know what the right answer in terms of getting votes would have been. The right answer would have been 'you bet I would ban extraction on public lands,'" Clinton said.
Instead, she said the focus has to be on changing domestic energy policy in a way that accounts for people who have jobs or rely on that energy production.
Clinton said she thinks the government could increase royalties for companies that drill for oil and gas or mine coal as a way to aid a transition away from fossil fuels.
"I do think that there has to be a greater fee on extraction while we do everything we can to transition to clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency," Clinton said.
Some green groups have pressured the Obama administration to ban fossil fuel development on federal lands since it would increase greenhouse gas emissions and counteract climate policies it has enacted.
Now they are directing that message to the 2016 candidates.
"Her words today suggest that Secretary Clinton is still stuck in the past, when you had to choose between the economy and the environment," said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for 350.org. "If she is serious about tackling climate change, she needs to be bold, show us a plan, and stop looking at this as a trade-off."
(Reporting by Amanda Becker in Dover, NH, writing by Valerie Volcovici in Washington DC; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Sandra Maler, Dan Grebler and Bernard Orr)