Did Interior break the law in eyeing oil, gas leases in the former Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument? Dems want new probe.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Protesters rally on the steps of the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Dec. 12, 2017, against Rep. Chris Stewart's Grand Staircase bill that would create an Escalante National Park along the much smaller boundaries set by President Donald Trump a few days earlier when he downsized the 20-year-old monument by executive order.

Washington • A New Mexico senator and Minnesota congresswoman are asking for an investigation of whether the Interior Department broke the law in conducting studies about possibly leasing land for oil and gas drilling in original boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

President Donald Trump cut 900,000 acres of the then-1.9 million acre monument in 2017, a move heralded by Utah’s GOP leaders but one that brought a swift rebuke by environmental groups who immediately sued the president.

The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains the monument area, has been in the process of creating a management plan for the region, which now includes three smaller monuments. One of the four potential management plans identified some 660,000 acres for possible leasing.

But a little-noticed provision tacked on to every budget for the Interior Department since 2002 says that it cannot use any taxpayer money to conduct pre-leasing studies on lands contained in monuments as they existed on Jan. 20, 2001.

(The Bears Ears National Monument created by President Barack Obama wouldn’t be covered under the budget language because it didn’t exist in 2001. Trump shrunk that monument as well in 2017.)

But the provision would apply to Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., told Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Wednesday that he believes the department violated the law and will ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate.

“How is this pre-leasing work not a violation of appropriations law?” Udall asked Bernhardt.

“I don't think it is but I will go look at it,” the secretary responded.

“I hope you look at it because it's pretty clear to me,” Udall said.

“Roger,” Bernhardt retorted.

There have been no leases doled out in the original boundaries of the monument but the government has identified possible acreage it could lease later on as part of a management planning process.

Udall and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., sent a letter to the GAO on Wednesday afternoon asking it to specifically investigate whether Interior’s actions violated its budget act and, if so, if the department also violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits a government agency from spending money without the approval of Congress.

Nada Culver, senior counsel for The Wilderness Society, which has sued the Trump administration over its dismantling of the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears monuments, said Interior's actions are not surprising.

“The Trump administration’s Department of Interior has a pattern of ignoring the law in their rush to sell out public lands for exploitation by private interests and the fossil fuel industry, and this planning process appears to be no different,” Culver said. “Thankfully, Senator Udall and Congresswoman McCollum are holding the Department accountable by asking the GAO to look into the Department’s likely violations in rushing forward plans to open up Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to drilling and mining.”

An Interior Department spokeswoman said Bernhardt’s remarks speak for themselves and did not elaborate.