A federal appeals court has rejected an industry and local government challenge to the Obama administration's withdrawal of 77 oil and gas leases that were sold at auction in the final month of the Bush administration.
Uintah and Duchesne counties joined Impact Energy Resources, Peak Royalty Holdings and Questar Exploration and Production in suing to block Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's February 2009 decision not to issue the leases. Environmentalists and the National Park Service had opposed the eastern Utah leases, some near Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, and Salazar said the Bureau of Land Management had not conducted adequate environmental reviews before the auction.
The 10th Circuit Court of appeals on Wednesday affirmed a previous decision by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that the plaintiffs waited too long to file their lawsuit.
"We fully supported Secretary Salazar's decision, and the 10th Circuit's ruling should be the final rejection of the challenge brought by industry and the counties," said Steve Bloch, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which intervened in the case. "It's the end of the road."
When Benson ruled in 2010, he also said that Salazar had overstepped his authority in withholding leases that had been sold to the highest bidder. It didn't matter, though, because he ruled that lawyers had missed the 90-day deadline for filing after Salazar made his decision.
The plaintiffs contended that Salazar's decision, announced at a news conference and then finalized in an internal Interior Department memo on Feb. 6, 2009, was not official until the government formally notified the companies. That notification came on Feb. 12, 2009, and attorneys filed their lawsuit 90 days after that date.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said the decision sets a bad precedent, potentially allowing government agencies to secretly make decisions that start the clock running for appeals.
"Internal documents could be internal for a long time," he said, "and you could potentially have decisions made that don't meet the public eye."
Several of the 77 leases have since been studied further and resold at auction. McKee said he takes consolation in Benson's declaration that Salazar overreached.
Bloch, though, said Benson's take on Salazar's authority was meaningless once the judge determined the time limitation had negated the lawsuit. The 10th Circuit did not comment on Salazar's authority, so Bloch said it sets no legal precedent about whether an Interior secretary may withdraw leases after auction.
The December 2009 Salt Lake City auction was the same one that attracted a protest outside BLM offices and led activist Tim DeChristopher to bid in an attempt to thwart the sale. DeChristopher is serving two years in prison for a violation of federal mineral leasing law a sentence imposed by Benson.