Utah leases decision won’t prevent future threats to pristine lands
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to uphold Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s cancellation of oil and gas leases close to the boundaries of Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur National Parks has been widely celebrated by environmentalists as a victory for public lands protection from unlimited energy development.
“Utah’s spectacular public lands are the real winner in this ruling,” said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney David Garbett.
It is important to note, however, that the decision to invalidate the leases was based on the failure of the leaseholders to submit their claims within 90 days of Salazar’s decision, not on the legality or merits of allowing drilling in sensitive areas.
The federal judge who ruled in favor of the Department of Interior based on the timing of the complaint also wrote that Salazar “exceeded his statutory authority by withdrawing leases” after the public lease sale.
“We are glad the appeals court upheld the district court and dismissed this lawsuit,” said Garbett. “A new administration came to its senses. It’s good to know that this correction will remain in place.”
However, if the decision had been made on more substantive grounds than the filing date, the decision almost certainly would have been different.
The leases in question were granted in the waning months of the Bush administration with little environmental review.
“As Secretary Salazar recognized,” said public-interest lawyer Robin Cooley, “the prior administration was in a ‘headlong rush’ to issue oil and gas leases and failed to conduct ... adequate environmental analyses and consult with the National Park Service.”
Cooley was the leading Earthjustice lawyer on the case. The lawsuit began in December 2008 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. It was filed on behalf of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, The National Trust, The National Parks Conservation Association and five other national and regional organizations.
The suit alleged that developing the leases would have a significant impact on wildlife, recreation, water and air quality and cultural resources in the affected parks. In some cases, the drilling operation would be visible from within the parks.
The federal court ruled in favor of the conservation groups in December 2010.
As a result of that decision, Salazar canceled the leases for the 77 parcels in question. They were pulled from auction to allow time for environmental and cultural impact studies.
A coalition of energy companies, off-road vehicle organizations and Utah counties filed a suit in the federal court in Utah to overturn Salazar’s decision.
When they failed there, the case was appealed to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, resulting in the ruling earlier this month.
“The court’s decision validates the significance of public land management consultation and planning before lease permits are offered for sale,” said David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The court decision that protects the areas around these national parks still leaves million of acres of pristine wild lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in Utah and other Western states open to potential energy development.
While celebrating their victory in this case, the groups that challenged these leases will continue to press for revision of the six Utah BLM management plans that are weak on protection for pristine areas.
“The plans are wildly unbalanced in favor of oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use,” said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch.
Secretary Salazar should lead an effort to examine last-minute Bush-era leases in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states. Not to do so validates the destructive “drill everywhere” policies of the Bush administration, which sought to make energy extraction the primary use of public lands.
As Garbett warned, “There is still work to do. The plans and documents that led to the disastrous offering of these lease parcels are still in place; this mistake could be repeated.”
We count on Salazar to prevent that from happening.