Feds suspend sale of Utah drilling leases
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
SALT LAKE CITY – In another high-profile reversal, the federal Bureau of Land Management decided immediately after a lease auction Tuesday to suspend the sale of all 31 oil and gas drilling parcels purchased over concerns that they overlap with prime wildlife habitat across Utah.
The decision was reminiscent of action taken by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in February that scrapped leases on 77 parcels sold near wild areas or national parks in Utah in the final days of the Bush administration.
Tuesday’s reversal didn’t cancel any leases, but officials decided to put them on hold for months to review objections filed by two conservation groups that say the drilling will disturb prime habitat for elk, mule deer, black-footed ferrets and sage grouse.
“Everything we sold today is under protest,” said Kent Hoffman, the BLM’s deputy Utah director of lands and minerals.
“The bottom line is when people have concerns, we want to deal with those,” he said.
The BLM had initially described Tuesday’s auction as protest-free, meaning none of the 42 parcels offered were encumbered by a formal protest from conservation or other groups. A protest requires the BLM to re-examine and study the parcels it offers, even after selling them.
The BLM had already pulled some parcels from the auction list, leaving more than 53,000 acres up for bid. Of that, 40,300 acres were sold, from elk grounds in Utah’s west desert to another big-game habitat, the East Tavaputs Plateau bordering the wild Green River.
The Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems had filed a protest covering all the parcels that were offered Tuesday, but the BLM rejected the complaint because it came in too late. For the same reason, the agency dismissed other objections filed by the Washington, D.C.-based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
In Tuesday’s reversal, Selma Sierra, the director of the BLM’s operations in Utah, decided to accept protests from both groups despite the fact they were filed after a May 13 deadline. That decision cast a cloud over the entire auction, and it came only after the auction was concluded. The BLM suspended leases on 31 drilling parcels that sold for a total of $1.3 million, pending an environmental review.
Salazar’s press secretary, Kendra Barkoff, played down the significance of BLM’s holding back the leases it sold at Tuesday’s auction. She called it “standard operating procedure” for many lease parcels at BLM auctions.
But some bidders reacted in anger.
“No way. That’s infuriating,” said Kimball Hodges, manager for Orem, Utah-based Par Five Exploration and Twilight Resources. Both companies have hundreds of thousands of dollars already tied up in leases that haven’t been issued from two previous Utah auctions.
Hodges was at the auction but offered only a few tepid, losing bids. “I made a joke about not wanting to bid because I didn’t want it to be taken away again,” he said. “To have this happen is just a joke.”
Hoffman informed The Associated Press of Sierra’s decision after the quarterly auction. He said she made it in the middle of the auction, but he didn’t learn about it until after bidders had left the auction hall. The decision was expected to be published on the agency’s Web site.
Bidders still have to pay for their parcels, but Hoffman said the agency won’t be able to immediately issue any leases. Hoffman said it would take his office at least a month, and possibly two, to re-examine each of the parcels that sold and determine whether they can be leased with adequate environmental safeguards. The BLM could decide to revoke some of the leases.
It’s routine for the BLM to demand payment for leases it can’t immediately issue.
The BLM had pulled 25 parcels from the auction list based on protests filed by other conservation groups. Many of those objections were to drilling in San Juan County, in the southeastern corner of Utah, near a prehistoric site that is the subject of an archaeological survey being funded by the BLM.
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Don’t freak out if you see helicopters hovering over the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry or fixed-wing aircraft making repeated trips. It is part an annual wildlife study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.