WASHINGTON - The Interior Department's inspector general has launched an investigation into environmentalists' complaints that the Bureau of Land Management promised to rig oil and gas leasing to benefit Utah counties and oil companies.
Inspector General Earl Devaney in a letter sent last week notified Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., that he had opened an inquiry .
"We'll do an investigation. At this point I don't know how deep we'll go or what we're going to find, so that will dictate a great deal of what we're going to do, but we're early in this," said Roy Kime, spokesman for the Interior Department's inspector general.
Hinchey had requested the investigation based on a memo from Robert Weidner, a lobbyist for several Utah counties, to his county officials expressing enthusiasm for the interim Utah BLM director's promise to work to "reduce restrictions on access to public land."
The July 18 meeting was attended by BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes, interim BLM State Director Henri Bisson, county officials and representatives from each of the 10 major oil and gas companies operating in Utah.
Hinchey and several environmental groups complained the BLM was making commitments in closed-door meetings to - as Weidner put it - "fix" resource management plans.
In a statement, the BLM said it will cooperate with the investigation and is confident that it will conclude the discussions were appropriate.
"Any characterizations contained in a Utah lobbyist's memo about this meeting that suggest anything other than an above-board listening session are erroneous, as are any interpretations of the memo that suggest any kind of behind-closed-doors deal," the bureau's statement said. "The July meeting was consistent with the types of meetings that the BLM routinely holds with all public land stakeholders."
Environmental groups conceded last month they had also met with the BLM on the land-use plans.
Hinchey asserted that by launching an investigation, Devaney "is acknowledging that BLM may have violated the public's trust and the law when working in Utah to allow more oil and gas access to wilderness lands."
"From everything we've seen, BLM officials appear to have acted against the best interests of the American people and the environment in order to expedite plans that would advance the oil and gas industry in Utah," Hinchey said in a statement.
It is not uncommon for an inspector general to open an investigation when it is requested by a member of Congress.
Weidner said Wednesday that the July 18 meeting was nothing more than a normal meeting with stakeholders who have a direct interest in the way BLM manages public lands.
"I think it presents us a golden opportunity to clarify, once and for all, what the counties' role in this process actually is," he said.
He said the BLM committed to working with counties on the planning processes, but didn't commit to specific management changes.
"The changes come in their working attitude toward counties," he said. "Historically they treated counties as if they're another interest group like (the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) is."
The department has announced that BLM chief of staff Selma Sierra will replace Bisson, who was serving as temporary director. Sierra is due to arrive in November and Bisson will return to his job as state director in Alaska.