Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday that he is rejecting the bids on 77 controversial Utah drilling leases close to national parks and sensitive public lands to give the department more time to review them.
The leases were among the so-called midnight maneuvers enacted in the last days of the Bush administration, many of which were criticized by environmentalists for weakening environmental protections.
The 77 leases comprise 130,000 acres close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon, and fetched $6 million in bids which Salazar said would be returned. They were among 116 parcels offered for bid in the region.
“Those are American iconic treasures that we need to make sure are protected,” Salazar said in a conference call with reporters.
Salazar said he was revisiting “a dozen or so” last-minute Bush initiatives, but he would not comment on them specifically.
“There were a number of decisions that were made by the Bush administration in the last several months in its existence,” he said. “In my view, several of those were rushed without going through the correct environmental review.”
Salazar cited inadequate environmental review in his decision to refuse the Utah bids. Salazar said consultation with the National Park Service was inadequate and the Interior Department failed to adequately consider the air quality impacts that increased drilling could have on nearby national parks.
Environmentalists had filed a lawsuit in an effort to block the leases. On Jan. 17, a U.S. district judge granted a temporary restraining order on them.
“We are delighted, naturally, that he is making the right decision here and pulling these leases,” said Garbett, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which filed the lawsuit, joined by other organizations.
He said the decision would “protect beautiful places and forego a minor amount of oil and gas.”
Salazar said the department would take “a fresh look” at the leases, and said some of them may be offered again.
“It will take time to restore the balance to our development of our conventional resources,” he said, “and restore the sort of thoughtful approach we should have had.”
Salazar wouldn’t comment on how it might affect the case of Tim De Christopher, the University of Utah student facing federal charges after he won bids on 13 of the 77 parcels but didn’t intend to pay for them.
The oil and gas industry criticized the decision.
“With this decision, our government is denying access to American energy that belongs to all Americans, and making it even more difficult to increase energy security and tackle climate change,” said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.