The Bureau of Land Management is withholding most of the federal acreage in Emery County that it had proposed to lease for oil and gas development, including parcels in and around the San Rafael Swell, citing a need to reconsider archeological and natural values that drilling could spoil.
The agency's quarterly auction in Salt Lake City next week was shaping up to be its most controversial since climate activist Tim DeChristopher disrupted a sale five years ago with a string of bogus bids on parcels near Utah national parks.
But after fielding concerns from various groups and citizens, BLM state director Juan Palma on Friday hit the pause button on proposed leases near places revered by rock art and outdoor enthusiasts, such as Eagle Canyon, Old Spanish Trail and the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
"We are deferring these particular lands from the upcoming sale to provide for additional review and consideration of the potential impacts leasing poses to natural and cultural resources," Palma said in a statement.
Utah's two Republican U.S. senators were quick to denounce Palma's decision, calling it a last-minute "bait and switch" and proof that BLM is "a vehicle for policies created by radical environmentalists."
"This bureaucratic maneuvering does more than hurt the companies that were ready, willing, and able to participate in Tuesday's auction," Sen. Mike Lee said. "It discourages companies from participating in future auctions, and perhaps ever investing in states that are dominated by federal land ownership."
Friday's announcement, which withdraws 100,000 acres from Tuesday's auction, caught Emery County officials by surprise.
"We need to look into the ramifications of this," said County Commissioner James Nelson, who chairs BLM's Resource Advisory Council. "The fact that they are deferring the leases and not taking them off the table is comforting. Developing natural resources is vital to our county. Anything that slows that down is devastating to us."
But critics of the leasing proposal contend it jeopardizes non-energy values that BLM is obligated to protect. The 300-member Utah Rock Art Research Association told BLM the 39,000-acre area around Indian Canyon, east of Ferron, harbors pristine petroglyphs and pictographs left by ancient American Indians.
"Director Palma gathered nine staff together and gave us an hour and a half to explain where the rock art resources were," group member Diane Orr said. "I felt they really listened and asked really good questions. The BLM has not had a lot of money for inventorying and documenting their cultural resources. The lack of knowledge is what results in these parcels being put out without people knowing what is at risk."
BLM will still solicit bids Tuesday on 35 parcels covering 44,021 acres in Emery, Carbon and Uintah counties. But Palma's decision to reduce the auction's scope was heralded as "a win-win solution" by Utah's outdoor industry and conservationists.
"This decision makes good sense," said Peter Metcalf, CEO and president of Black Diamond Equipment. "We know the benefits that protecting Utah's remarkable public lands has for our state's economy. At the same time, BLM is moving ahead with leasing in less sensitive lands and, of course, industry also has millions of acres under lease that aren't being developed."
That may be true, but the decision is more of a win-lose because it limits options for industry, according to Lee Peacock, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Association.
"It's disappointing. Leasing is the life blood of the oil and gas industry," Peacock said. "Leasing is just the beginning of a long process. There are numerous opportunities for public input and regulatory analysis that goes into a particular parcel before it can ever be developed."
With so much uncertainty associated with energy markets, endangered species and environmental studies, maintaining large lease holds is essential for energy developers.
"It gives industry flexibility to develop what makes the most sense," Peacock said.
But pulling San Rafael leases back may actually provide greater certainty, according to the BLM.
"Our decision gives us time to make sure that what we move forward is appropriate for development," spokeswoman Megan Crandall said.