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Advocates: Emails show Utah oil shale meeting was illegal

Energy » Counties insist they discussed legal strategy, but skeptics smell politics instead.

First Published Jun 15 2012 04:58 pm • Last Updated Jun 15 2012 11:26 pm

Open-government advocates say documents obtained through a records request show that three Utah counties illegally closed a meeting during which they discussed how to oppose a federal plan to limit oil-shale leasing.

Colorado Common Cause objected when Uintah County organized a March 27 closed-door Vernal session with officials from several Utah, Wyoming and Colorado counties. The group filed records requests with the counties and received 450 pages, many of them emails, some of which indicate industry lobbyists helped craft a resolution that the counties later passed.

At a glance

BLM’s plan

The Bureau of Land Management has proposed shrinking the previously approved acreage for oil-shale leasing in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming from 1.9 million acres to 462,000, while also squeezing tar sands lease potential from 431,000 acres to 91,000. Most of the shale and all of the tar sands under consideration are in eastern Utah.

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The roster included a lobbyist for Red Leaf Resources, the Utah company planning to heat shale until oil flows from it on a state lease it holds in Uintah County.

"It’s outrageous that these counties shut the public out of the meeting but let oil-shale lobbyists from Red Leaf and others in the room," Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Elena Nunez said. "The emails we obtained demonstrate state and local public officials meeting with industry behind closed doors to advance a policy position and develop a political strategy."

The meeting also sought input from the National Oil Shale Association, according to the documents.

While industry backers say the technology is ready to extract fuel from the region’s oil shale, no company has yet done so on a commercial scale — one reason the government suggests scaling back lease offerings until the industry matures.

Utah’s open-meetings law allows government bodies to close meetings when discussing imminent litigation, and that is what county officials say they were doing. The counties shared and later passed a resolution opposing a Bureau of Land Management plan to dramatically curtail shale lands available for lease — arguably a policy position rather than a legal strategy. But the resolution does note reasons for suing if BLM doesn’t back off, and county commissioners have defended it as a legal session.

"We brought in specialists from the companies," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee, who helped organize the meeting that included officials from Duchesne and Carbon counties, plus state officials. "We have every right and opportunity under the Open Meetings Act to have a closed meeting and discuss potential litigation."

Common Cause is considering an administrative appeal in Utah to get other documents that Uintah County declined to release.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office had no immediate comment Friday about the session’s legality, but spokesman Paul Murphy said anyone who believes a meeting has been closed illegally can file a complaint with the office.

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It’s hard to argue that litigation is "imminent" when the BLM’s decision on leasing acreage won’t even be final until year’s end, said Matt Garrington, who monitors oil-shale developments for the Checks and Balances Project.

"No matter what you want to call it, they were coordinating on a political strategy with oil-shale lobbyists from Red Leaf and other oil-shale companies behind closed doors," Garrington said. "This should be a fair and open debate, and it wasn’t."

A Red Leaf official did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Kathleen Clarke, Gov. Gary Herbert’s top public lands adviser, attended the meeting but said she did not organize it.

"I attended the meeting at the invitation [of] county economic development staff," she said in a written statement. "It was the county’s meeting. It would be inappropriate for me to opine on the way the meeting was managed."

bloomis@sltrib.comTwitter: @brandonloomis

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