Feds have until Friday to salvage Utah oil auction | AspenTimes.com

Feds have until Friday to salvage Utah oil auction

Paul Foy
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SALT LAKE CITY ” With a new president in charge, the federal government is uncertain how to handle a lawsuit challenging an oil-and-gas auction in Utah.

Government lawyers have until Friday to respond in writing to a federal judge who blocked the awarding of drilling leases near national parks and in wild areas of Utah.

In Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina could put auction sales on 77 disputed lease parcels on hold until he decides a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. The lawsuit could take years to resolve.

Urbina issued his restraining order Saturday, saying a broad coalition of environmental groups had “shown a likelihood of success on the merits” of their case. The judge said he was stopping the government from awarding leases because of the finality of that act. He said it would be irreversible and that drilling could lead to “irreparable harm” to public lands.

The order stopped the government from cashing checks for more than 100,000 acres of public land in eastern and southern Utah.

Government lawyers had told the judge they would cash the checks Monday if he didn’t rule by then.

Urbina said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to do a sufficient environmental analysis for drilling on wild lands and no analysis at all of how air pollution might worsen around Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and 6 other groups who brought the lawsuit contend the BLM failed to run computer models for ozone pollution, or smog that has cut down on views from national parks.

“BLM is unable to assess the concentration of pollution in the air and therefore cannot adequately measure those pollutants which are expressed in ambient concentrations,” Urbina wrote.

The judge put other disputed leases on hold along the Green River’s Desolation Canyon, one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48, and around nearby Nine Mile Canyon, which has been called the world’s longest art gallery for its collection of pre-Columbian rock-art panels.

“BLM’s attempt to sell these leases just before the Bush administration left office has been showcased for what it really is ” a parting gift to the oil and gas industry,” said Stephen Bloch, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Sharon Buccino, senior attorney for NRDC, said the development of a few dozen parcels in the redrock country of Utah would do nothing to secure the nation’s energy security.

Federal lawyers told The Associated Press they couldn’t comment because it’s uncertain how the new administration will handle the case. President Barack Obama was sworn in Tuesday.

The BLM had no comment. John Steiger, a lawyer for solicitor’s office at the U.S. Department of the Interior, who is involved in the case, referred questions to Guillermo A. Montero, a Department of Justice lawyer who referred the AP to Andrew Aimes, a spokesman for the DOJ.

Aimes said he couldn’t offer “speculation” on how the government would handle the case. “We just don’t have any comment,” he said.

The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States characterized Urbina’s order as a setback for Obama’s goal of energy independence.

The auction held Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City was disrupted by an environmental activist who registered as a bidder, ran up prices and won 22,500 acres between Arches and Canyonlands national parks for safekeeping.

Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old University of Utah economics major, has said he expects to be charged for what he calls an act of civil disobedience.

DeChristopher was hauled out of the auction hall for questioning by BLM criminal investigators about halfway through the bidding. He acknowledged he had no intention or the means to pay $1.7 million for his parcels.

The auction resumed the same day, but Kent Hoffman, deputy state director for the BLM in Utah, announced afterward that buyers would have 10 days to reconsider and withdraw their bids if they thought they paid too much.

A pair of bidders withdrew $73,000 in bids on two parcels, but the BLM said it wasn’t clear if they had second thoughts because of DeChristopher’s interference.

Other bidders said they were reluctantly holding on to their leases ” despite the higher cost ” out of concern that the parcels might not go up for auction again under the Obama administration.

The BLM, meanwhile, has said it was too late for supporters of DeChristopher who have raised money to make a down payment on his parcels.

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