Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will cancel the results of a chaotic Utah oil- and gas-lease sale that drew protests from conservationists, outdoors enthusiasts, the National Park Service and President Barack Obama's transition team chief.
The move drew quick congratulations from members of Congress who had criticized the sale the U.S. Bureau of Land Management conducted Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City.
"In one clean swoop, Interior Secretary Salazar erased a last-minute attempt by the Bush administration to give away some of our country's most pristine land for oil and gas exploitation," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who took over sponsorship of America's Redrock Wilderness Act, introduced in 1989 by former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah .
Salazar was expected to make a formal announcement Wednesday afternoon that he would invalidate the sale of 77 leases on 103,000 acres near Vernal, Moab and Price.
The lease auction, which the BLM staged under the Bush administration's directive to maximize drilling in Utah's scenic redrock country, fell apart when a University of Utah student, Tim DeChristopher, monkey-wrenched it by winning bids on 13 of the 77 disputed parcels with no intention of paying the $1.8 million owed for the leases.
"That's excellent. That's wonderful," DeChristopher said Wednesday of Salazar's move. "That's the kind of strong stance we need our leaders to be taking."
It remained unknown Wednesday how the lease cancellations might affect DeChristopher's potential prosecution on federal charges that could result from his auction actions, which he called an act of civil disobedience.
The oil and gas industry lamented Salazar's decision and warned that it could signal a policy shift that will cost consumers more in the long run.
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"This action signals the beginning of the administration's plan to disregard the voices of millions of Americans who want to utilize our vast domestic energy resources," said Institute for Energy Research President Thomas J. Pyle in Washington. "Rather than allow Americans to increase our domestic exploration -- which leads to less reliance on unstable foreign regimes, more American jobs and increased revenue for the government -- the Obama administration's actions will lead to job losses, government revenue losses and higher energy costs."
On Tuesday, 11 conservation and historic preservation groups amended a lawsuit that already had resulted in a temporary restraining order against the BLM sale.
On Jan. 17, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina issued a ruling to indefinitely suspend lease sales on parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Desolation Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, wilderness study areas and Nine Mile Canyon
The groups had argued that the leases were faulty because the BLM didn't properly study air quality or potential damage to ancient rock art when crafting three long-range plans that laid ground for the lease sale.
The fate of those three plans, plus three others that included 11 million acres of public land in eastern and southern Utah, could be in limbo with Salazar's decision.
"Until Secretary Salazar fixes the underlying defective resource-management plans," Hinchey said, "the result will be more lease sales in extremely sensitive areas, including lands that will be offered at the upcoming March 24 sale in Utah."
Steve Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case against the BLM and Interior, said the resource-management plans are "fatally flawed."