Scolding the Bush administration for rushing in its final days to drill near treasured Utah national parks, President Barack Obama's new Interior secretary Wednesday shelved oil and gas leases sold during a chaotic December auction.
Ken Salazar's action -- which drew cheers from conservationists and sneers from industry representatives -- triggered questions about the validity of costly land-use plans governing development and recreation on federal lands in the Beehive State, the fate of a University of Utah student who sabotaged the disputed lease auction and the future of drilling in the West.
But while he canceled the sale of the leases, still the object of an ongoing lawsuit, Salazar refused to put them permanently off-limits to drilling. "I don't necessarily believe all 77 of these oil and gas leases won't go into development at some time."
That would happen, Salazar indicated, only after Interior reviews how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management crafted at least three of its six long-range blueprints for 11 million acres of southern and eastern Utah.
These multimillion-dollar plans were the foundation of the lease sale Salazar invalidated and a federal judge ruled against. They also were the basis of U. student Tim DeChristopher's decision to go after a number of parcels with no intention of paying the $1.8 million he bid to snag 13 of them, even though he could face federal felony charges.
DeChristopher, 27, praised Salazar's decision. "That's excellent. That's wonderful. That's the kind of strong stance we need our leaders to be taking."
The monkey-wrenching activist said his disruption of the auction boosted mainstream conservationists' effectiveness.
But Salazar's move appears to have no effect on DeChristopher's potential legal snarls after the student "won" 13 of the 77 parcels, which cover about 103,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Desolation Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument and relic-rich Nine Mile Canyon.
"The decision to withdraw the leases does not wipe the slate clean," U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said. " As we do with every case referred to our office, we will continue to carefully review the facts in this case and, if appropriate, present it to a grand jury."
A federal judge already has given teeth to the argument that the BLM was derelict when it wrote its land-use plans -- without properly analyzing air quality or potential harm to ancient cultural relics -- to accommodate drilling.
Now U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina is considering an amended suit brought by a coalition of conservation and historic-preservation groups challenging the BLM's plans for the Vernal, Price and Moab regions.
A famous critic of the lease sale, actor and filmmaker Robert Redford, a Natural Resources Defense Council trustee, lauded the Obama administration's move as a sign that citizens, "after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings," have more say on what happens to public lands.
But the oil and gas industry warned that a policy shift could cost consumers more in the long run.
"The Obama administration's actions will lead to job losses, government revenue losses and higher energy costs," said Institute for Energy Research President Thomas J. Pyle in Washington.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also blasted Salazar's decision. "The argument that these leases have been canceled to protect our national parks is a fairy tale conjured up to win public support for what is actually a very dangerous anti-oil agenda."
Salazar said he based his decision on environmentally heedless GOP policies.
"In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation's most treasured landscapes in Utah," he said. "We will take a fresh look at these 77 parcels and the adequacy of the environmental review and analysis that led to their being offered for oil and gas development."
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who took over sponsorship of America's Redrock Wilderness Act, introduced in 1989 by former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah , commended Salazar but said he needs to go further.
"Until Secretary Salazar fixes the underlying defective resource-management plans," Hinchey said, "the result will be more lease sales in extremely sensitive areas."
Salazar's promise to review the BLM's plans covers a lot of ground, added Robin Cooley, staff attorney for Earthjustice. "Now that the lease sales are off the table, there are bigger problems. What we're ultimately looking for is going back and doing this process right. That doesn't mean the end to all oil and gas leases in Utah."
The BLM in Utah is preparing a parcel list for its next quarterly sale, tentatively scheduled for March 24, said spokeswoman Mary Wilson.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew 77 oil and gas leases near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, Desolation Canyon and Nine Mile Canyon.
Salazar questioned the analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of potential harm from drilling to air quality and ancient cultural artifacts. He said he wants a more balanced approach that would take in environmental concerns along with oil- and gas-development needs.
What happens to the companies that won bids?
Their money will be returned. In any event, the BLM can't issue leases until further review or resolution of official protests lodged against the lease sales, which could take years.
What about our energy needs?
Salazar did not rule out future development on those parcels, which cover about 103,000 acres near those parks. But he said the Obama administration wants future oil and gas drilling to harmonize with Utah's special landscapes. Industry representatives and Sen. Orrin Hatch blasted Salazar's decision as an anti-oil obstacle to energy independence.
A lawsuit challenging three BLM long-range plans for the Vernal, Moab and Price regions remains in federal court in Washington. Depending on the outcome, the BLM may need to amend or redo portions of the plans. In the meantime, the BLM in Utah is preparing for another oil- and gas-lease sale tentatively set for March 24.
Tim DeChristopher may not be in the clear. The U.S. attorney says the University of Utah student, who sabotaged the lease auction, still is being investigated and could face charges.