Review of oil leases finds few are valid

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that only 17 of 77 oil and gas leases on Utah public lands that the Bush administration auctioned off in December were valid and that his agency would prevent development on the remaining parcels, at least in the near future.

Salazar spoke at a Washington news conference to announce the findings of a report he commissioned this year on the parcels, which became the subject of a fierce controversy during the waning days of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Environmentalists contended that the auction of drilling rights on 100,000 acres of federal land in southeastern Utah were a last-minute giveaway to the energy industry. The environmentalists won a restraining order from a federal judge halting the sales.

Salazar revoked most of the leases upon entering office and said his staff would study which were appropriate. On Thursday, he said the review found that few were.


“There was a headlong rush to leasing in the prior administration,” Salazar said. “There were areas that should not have been leased.”

He said eight of the parcels should never be leased and the remainder could be leased someday after additional review and regulations. The problematic parcels included lands within view of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. One lease was directly on the Colorado River, in a cliff face above a popular campground.

The report, based on nine days of on-site investigation, found that people in the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah office, which oversaw the sales, believed that energy concerns should override environmental or recreational ones.

“There is no such preference for the use of the land,” Salazar said.


Energy groups said the findings continued a troubling trend -- a hesitancy in the Obama administration to foster American energy sources. Salazar has also reversed a Bush administration effort to open swathes of Western land to oil shale development.

“We wonder why the administration continues to undertake actions that limit economic development in the West, decrease energy security and make addressing climate change even more difficult,” Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of Mountain States said in a statement.

Environmental groups hailed the report’s findings but cautioned that even if the Obama administration wanted to rebid the 17 leases it found appropriate, it would need to follow procedures laid down by the federal judge.

“The report is a resounding rejection of the ‘drill here, drill now’ approach of the Bush administration,” said Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.