The Obama administration Wednesday canceled 77 leases its predecessor sold to oil and gas companies that wanted to explore beneath the red rock country of Utah, the first of several expected steps to reverse the Bush administration's Western legacy.
"We need to responsibly develop oil and gas supply to protect us from our dependence on foreign oil," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, "but we need to do so in a thoughtful and respectful way."
The December auction of more than 100,000 acres of federal land was one of a number of last-minute environmental changes made by the Bush administration that Salazar and the Obama administration are expected to wrestle with over the coming months.
Salazar has said he wants to revisit Bush-era regulations that open much of the West to oil shale development, the delisting of the gray wolf as an endangered species, and a rule that allows federal agencies to avoid consulting scientists on whether the Endangered Species Act applies to certain projects.
"Many of those decisions were rushed," Salazar said in an afternoon conference call with reporters.
Environmental groups said the new administration has its work cut out for it.
"There's so much to be done with the Bush administration legacy," said Robin Cooley, an attorney with Earthjustice, "that we're going to be dealing with it not for months but for years."
Energy industry groups said the decision to void the lease sales was a bad start for the Obama administration.
"When we take public lands and put them off-limits to national gas development, we're denying ourselves a resource we need," said Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of Mountain States.
On election day, the Bush administration announced that it was selling leases to hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah, saying it was the culmination of a seven-year process to change the way federal lands are administered in that state. Some of the parcels adjoined national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands. Contrary to normal procedure, the National Park Service was not consulted in the sale.
The administration removed some parcels from the list before its Dec. 19 auction, but environmentalists sued, arguing that most of the remaining leases were in lands that required greater review. Last month, a federal judge barred the government from cashing checks from the auction, saying the matter deserved a greater hearing in court.
Salazar let stand 39 leases in areas that were less environmentally sensitive but said the 77 he was reversing were too close to "American iconic treasures that we need to make sure are protected."
He said that the parcels would be reevaluated and that some could find their way back to auction.
During his conference call, Salazar declined to say whether he would reverse the resource management plans that enabled the Bureau of Land Management to sell the leases.
He also declined to state his position on an investigation by the U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City into an environmental activist who posed as a bidder and won the rights to 12 parcels.