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Closed rebellion

Published June 20, 2012 4:45 pm

Counties hide oil shale meeting
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If various officials in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming don't like the Obama administration's decision to slow the rush toward potentially disastrous attempts to turn rocks and sand into fuel — and many of them don't — they have as much right as anyone else to just say so.

It must have been a lot more fun, though, for commissioners from Uintah, Carbon and Duchesne counties to organize a clandestine gathering for themselves, some counterparts from Colorado and Wyoming, a couple of state officials and lobbyists from a so-far imaginary industry that claims to know how to turn the region's oil shale into gasoline at a competitive price. All the better to style themselves as the oppressed as they hammered out their resolutions of objection.

By acting this way, officials who are clearly salivating over the very thin prospect of an oil shale boom succeed only in undermining their own legal, political and ethical case. State officials would better serve their local colleagues if they told them so, rather than enable them with feeble excuses.

The Colorado chapter of Common Cause, a public interest watchdog group, used public records laws in the three states to obtain documentation of the March 27 closed-door meeting in Vernal. Those records seriously undermine the participants' claim that the meeting was no more than a legal strategy session and, as such, exempt from open meetings laws.

There were a few attorneys present. But there is no sign of a lawsuit. And the participation of various oil shale developers and groups suggests that, as Common Cause charges, the meeting's purpose was for elected officials, who are supposed to represent the public interest, to have a secret meeting of the minds with outfits that exist for the single purpose of wringing private profits out of public lands.

Officials from the three Utah counties, as well as Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties in Colorado and Wyoming's Lincoln County, gathered to brainstorm with representatives of would-be oil shale exploiters. Also present were Kathleen Clarke, top public lands adviser to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and John Nowoslawski, Utah state manager of "unconventional energy development."

Clarke waved aside concerns about the legality of the meeting, shifting blame to the county organizers. She would have better served her friends — in county government and in the industry — if she had cautioned them against playing fast and loose with open government laws.

The concept of open government matters. And it will continue to matter, long after dreams of an oil shale bonanza have either collapsed or been realized.