Attorney says Salazar could yank oil, gas leases
August 17, 2009
DENVER – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the authority to cancel oil and gas leases on western Colorado’s Roan Plateau, said an attorney representing environmental groups challenging the leases.
Last week, Salazar ruled out withdrawing leases issued for nearly 55,000 acres of public land on the plateau. He told The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction last week that the leases have been signed and he is bound to protect the buyers’ property rights.
But Michael Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Salazar can cancel the leases if he determines they were illegal or improper.
“He has the authority to recognize when his department has legal vulnerability,” Freeman said.
An example of that, Freeman said, was Salazar’s decision in February to withdraw 77 oil and gas leases issued by the Bush administration in Utah after saying they were too close to national parks. He left open the possibility that some leases might prove suitable for development after a review.
The Utah leases weren’t as far along in the process as the Roan leases, Salazar has said.
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Matt Lee-Ashley, a spokesman for Salazar, declined to comment Monday because of the ongoing legal battle. He said negotiations continue in the efforts to settle the lawsuit.
As a Colorado senator, Salazar was critical of the Bush administration’s plan to develop the Roan Plateau about 180 miles west of Denver. He started exploring resolving the lawsuit out of court after taking over as Interior secretary earlier this year.
The lawsuit by environmental groups claims the federal government’s analysis of the potential impacts of development on the Roan Plateau was inadequate.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has defended its plan, saying it was developed after several years of study, public meetings and input and contains several safeguards. Federal and industry officials have said it’s the most restrictive drilling plan of any for development on federal land.
The battle over tapping the Roan Plateau’s vast gas reserves and protecting its extensive wildlife habitat and undeveloped backcountry moved to the courts last year after the BLM approved opening up more areas to drilling.
Last summer’s auction of federal leases on 54,631 acres of the plateau generated nearly $114 million, a record for onshore energy lease sales in the lower 48 states.
The BLM’s plan projects up to 1,570 wells drilled from 193 pads and over 20 years, including 210 wells from 13 pads on top of the plateau. The BLM says its proposal would preserve 51 percent of land on the Roan while allowing recovery of more than 90 percent of natural gas there.