Enviros cheer, critics jeer report on 'flawed' oil leases

Bishop » Utah congressman calls it "crap," Bennett is conciliatory
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To environmentalists, the Interior Department report finding a "flawed" process for doling out oil and gas leases in Utah last December was vindication. To pro-drilling interests, the findings were an infuriating political hatchet job.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, simply called it "crap."

But Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, whose temporary block on the nomination of Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes spurred the report, sounded a more conciliatory note.

He said in a statement he was "grateful for the department's expeditious review," and was "encouraged" that some 30 of the 77 leases shelved after the auction may be reinstated.

"As I have discussed with Secretary [of the Interior Ken] Salazar, it is important that the administration fulfill its promise to develop a balanced energy plan and that includes oil and gas development," Bennett said.

The department on Thursday released the 13-page report detailing mistakes made during the waning days of the Bush administration in offering more than 100,000 acres in Utah for oil and gas development, including that many of the parcels were too close to national parks and shouldn't have been sold.

The report also said that about 30 of the 77 disputed parcels may again be offered to previous bidders or sold at a new auction, but the rest will be extensively studied before development is considered.

Conservation groups on Thursday cheered the report's findings.

"We're certainly gratified and feel vindicated that the administration recognized what we've been saying all along, which is that the Bush administration in its final days was in a headlong rush to lease as much public lands as possible for oil and gas development, regardless of how sensitive and special those lands were," said Jim Angell, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice.

Earthjustice joined with several others, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, to sue over the lease auction, prompting a federal judge in January to issue a restraining order against moving forward with the sale.

SUWA, meanwhile, said the report shows the BLM mishandled the sale and justifies the lawsuit to halt the leases.

"It does identify in detail the major flaws in the process: The way the public was cut out of the process; how the [National] Park Service was cut out of the process," said Heidi McIntosh, SUWA's associate director.

McIntosh said the environmental group isn't worried that up to 30 leases may be reoffered to bidders or auctioned again. The court injunction forbids reissuing those leases for now, she said, and the problems associated with this lease sale aren't likely to be repeated.

"Having recognized those problems, it's hard to imagine the BLM making the same mistake twice," McIntosh said.

But Bishop, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said it was obvious that Hayes, who wrote the report, wasn't listening when he flew to Utah last month to hear from residents in the areas affected by the leases.

"This decision continues some just gross misstatements," Bishop said. "It's an insult obviously to the BLM professionals who spent the five to seven years putting the land plans together."

Even more, Bishop said, the decision to halt the leases hurt the oil and gas industry in Utah, costing much-needed jobs in rural areas.

"These decisions have an impact in Utah, they have an impact on real people," Bishop said. "People are hurt by this crap."

Thursday's report also noted that the BLM failed to inform the National Park Service that several tracts of land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument were added to the lease sale at the last minute.

Some of the more egregious leases were jettisoned from the sale, the report says, but others were allowed to go through.