Utah Oil and Gas Lease Auction Protested, Legal Deal Struck

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, December 19, 2008 (ENS) – Today, in front of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Salt Lake City, more than 100 demonstrators braved the wind and cold hoping their protest could save some of Utah’s prime wilderness lands from destruction for oil and gas development.

Inside, the BLM was auctioning off 131 parcels of land for oil and gas leases, but the protesters were not allowed in.

At the sale, the BLM sold 116 of the 131 offered parcels, totaling 148,598 acres of federal land located in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand, San Juan and Uintah Counties. Leases on the parcels were sold between $10 and $200 dollars an acre for a total of $7.47 million.

Oil rig in Utah (Photo courtesy Utah BLM)

Near the end of the auction, two registered bidders were detained by Bureau of Land Management Special Agents. An investigation is being conducted by the BLM and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah into the possibility that federal offenses were committed by these bidders in an apparent effort to impede the bidding process to prevent others from bidding.

Late last night in a legal protest of the lease sales that may save 100,000 acres of the most vulnerable wilderness, an agreement between the BLM and a coalition of environmental and preservation groups was filed in federal court in Washington, DC.

The deal will temporarily prevent the BLM from issuing leases on 80 contested parcels of Utah wilderness, including land adjacent to three national parks, for 30 days, until January 19.

The coalition on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia seeking an injunction to stop the lease auction.

Although BLM went forward with the auction today, the agency has agreed not to issue the contested leases. This will give federal court Judge Ricardo Urbina in Washington, DC time to hear the case.

The environmental and preservation groups filing the case include – Earthjustice, Grand Canyon Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and the Wilderness Society.

In a joint statement today, they said, “Our legal actions have delayed today’s transfer of pristine Utah wilderness, but the fight is not over. We will get our day in court with BLM, and we will do all we can to protect Utah’s unspoiled landscapes.”

“Yet President [George W.] Bush can still do something to save these areas. He can take Utah’s unprotected wilderness off the auction block for good. This is not a mess that should be left to the Obama administration,” the groups declared.

In their lawsuit, the groups decribe the damage that they are trying to prevent. “Development of these leases will degrade air quality at Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. It will lead to construction of well pads, pipelines and roads in some of Utah’s most impressive wilderness quality landscapes such as the Desolation Canyon wilderness character area … one of the largest roadless areas in the lower forty-eight states.”

“These activities will also harm Nine Mile Canyon, an area that BLM describes as ‘the longest outdoor art gallery in the world’ because of its substantial concentration of prehistoric archeological sites and rock art,” the lawsuit states.

These lands were made available to industry in late October and early November through six resource management plans that will affect three million acres of public lands.

The plaintiff groups argue that these plans were hastily approved so the leases could be sold before President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20, 2009.

“The Bush administration has rushed to get these leases out the door,” said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC. “In their midnight maneuvering, BLM failed to complete the analysis required by federal law for the protection of America’s natural and cultural treasures.”

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