A last-ditch effort by former President George W. Bush to open up precious public lands near Utah national parks for oil and gas exploration has lost in court again.
A federal appeals court rightly ruled invalid a lawsuit by industry and local governments to overturn the Obama administration's withdrawal of 77 oil and gas leases. The leases were auctioned in the final month of the Bush administration, as the Republican president was leaving office.
Environmental groups and the National Park Service opposed the leases, which would have allowed drilling near Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also rightly protested the rushed bidding process, saying the Bureau of Land Management had not conducted a thorough environmental review of the land parcels before the auction.
The December 2009 auction was clearly Bush's final effort to fulfill his pledge to oil and gas companies to allow drilling throughout the West and wherever possible to circumvent environmental laws meant to protect sensitive lands.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this past week a decision by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that the plaintiffs waited too long to file their suit. Benson ruled in 2010 that lawyers had missed the 90-day deadline for filing after Salazar decided to pull the leases.
The plaintiffs, including Uintah and Duchesne counties and several energy companies, argued that Salazar's decision, finalized in an internal Interior Department memo on Feb. 6, 2009, was not official until the government formally notified the companies that had successfully bid on the leases. That notification came on Feb. 12, 2009, and attorneys filed suit 90 days later.
The auction was the same one in which activist Tim DeChristopher, then a University of Utah student, submitted bids he knew he could not pay for in an attempt to thwart the sale. DeChristopher is serving two years in prison a sentence imposed by Benson, who later admitted the sentence was not justified by DeChristopher's fraudulent bidding but was Benson's reaction to his lack of remorse.
DeChristopher has said he submitted the bids to save those public lands from being despoiled without regard for their value for recreation, as watershed and habitat for wildlife, or for their archaeological and cultural treasures.
This long, expensive, and, in DeChristopher's case, sad episode never should have happened. And such disregard for law and the value of Utah's outdoor treasures should never happen again.
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