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Cheyenne, Wyo. • A judge has ruled that the Interior Department must abide by a deadline in the Mineral Leasing Act and decide within 60 days of selling oil and gas leases at auction whether to issue the leases to the companies that have bought them.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled from the bench Wednesday in a lawsuit filed last year by the Western Energy Alliance.

"The court is not mandating lease issuance but is mandating a decisional timeframe injected by Congress," she said, referring to the deadline added to the act in 1987.

She said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would need to decide on all remaining outstanding leases listed in the lawsuit immediately, though not immediately in the sense of "mother to a child." She suggested that within 30 days of her ruling might be appropriate.

Freudenthal sided with industry's argument that Interior needed to follow more closely what the Mineral Leasing Act says.

"We're glad that the court recognized industry's desire for more certainty in the leasing process. And we're glad that the court has given the government a deadline for making a decision," said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government and public affairs for the alliance. Freudenthal stopped short of saying the government is required to issue leases within 60 days of sale, however. Because of that Sgamma said the ruling didn't go as far as industry would have liked.

An Earthjustice attorney representing environmentalists in the case praised the ruling for putting a deadline on resolving environmental protests within 60 days of a lease sale.

"Those concerns have to be addressed and I think this really makes it clear that they will be," said the attorney, Robin Cooley.

The Western Energy Alliance sued last year over a more than 2-year-old backlog of federal oil and gas leases in Wyoming and Utah. At its peak, the backlog topped 1,500 leases in Wyoming alone while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management worked to address protests filed by environmental groups.

A change in presidential administrations and pending endangered species decisions — in particular a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision last year not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened — slowed the process of addressing the protests and issuing leases to the companies that bought them

The BLM since has cleared most of the leases. That includes most of 118 leases in Wyoming and Utah named in the lawsuit, although decisions still are pending for nine in Wyoming and 38 in Utah, said Rebecca Watson, attorney for the Western Energy Alliance.

"These are resources held by the American people and they are meant to be developed for the good of the American people," Watson told Freudenthal.

Watson and an attorney for the American Petroleum Institute argued that the law leaves no question that the 60-day deadline to issue a lease begins on the day of sale.

Attorneys for the Interior Department and environmental groups argued that the 60-day deadline goes into effect when the Interior secretary decides that land will in fact be leased. The act doesn't specify when the clock starts ticking, they argued, but practice has established that it doesn't necessarily begin on auction day if an environmental protest is unresolved.

Without such flexibility, a surge in protests in recent years would "grind the lease program to a halt," argued Joanna Brinkman, an attorney for the government.

"The secretary needs the time to do the due diligence," Brinkman said.

Freudenthal said the Interior secretary has discretion whether or not to issue a lease "but discretion must end."

"The court will not disregard the 60-day deadline," she said.

She said she would follow up with a written ruling within a day or two. —

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