Judge grills feds on pulling Utah drilling leases

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge on Wednesday questioned Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s justification for canceling 77 drilling leases sold by the Bush administration around national parks in Utah.

A U.S. Justice Department lawyer maintained Salazar had good reason to cancel the leases — and that a lease isn’t a lease until Salazar decides to issue one.

Until the government decides to release a parcel for leasing, even after an auction, it doesn’t have to do it, Tyler Welti argued.

Those arguments seemed to leave U.S. District Judge Dee Benson less than satisfied during a two-hour hearing, the first in a lawsuit brought by energy producers over Salazar’s February 2009 decision to cancel much of the lease sale held in the final month of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Benson didn’t indicate how he would rule but repeatedly challenged the government to explain how it could get around laws that say the government “shall” lease lands it puts up for auction to the highest bidder.

“They could probably fool a lot of people when they say, ‘We’re having a lease sale,’” Benson said. “‘Are you selling leases?’ ‘Yes, if we decide to.’”

Three Utah counties have joined the suit, alleging Salazar’s actions damaged their economies.


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