Today, Interior Secretary Salazar said that eight of 77 oil and gas lease parcels sold during a December auction in the waning hours of the Bush administration will be off-limits to drilling. Oil and gas development of the parcels, most on public land near national parks in Utah, had been halted by court order after Earthjustice sued to block the sale of these lands in January. The Interior Secretary agreed with the basic premise of Earthjustice's legal challenge, calling the Bush-era oil development plans "a headlong rush" to allow oil and gas companies to drill public lands.
Salazar said more work needs to be done to determine the fate of the majority of the other disputed lands — 52 parcels totaling 69,373 acres.
The Secretary's comments accompanied release of a report by an 11-member team from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Forest Service that closely examined the rushed Bush administration attempt to hand over America's public lands to the oil and gas industry.
The report found that public lands located in the spectacular wild canyon country near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks shouldn't be drilled and that other undeveloped wild lands should be deferred from leasing pending further review. The report also identifies the need for greater coordination with the National Park Service in future leasing decisions as well as a comprehensive air quality strategy to address the growing ozone and other air quality problems created by drilling, pumping, and venting of drill sites in Utah and other western states.
Abandoning the Bush-era policy of drill first, ask questions later, Secretary Salazar announced that it was a "new day" at the Department of Interior. He agreed with the long-held Earthjustice position that energy development on public lands should not automatically take priority over protecting wildlife, wilderness, and cultural resources.
In spite of today's positive developments, Bush-era plans to open an additional 2 million acres of public lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Utah to oil and gas development remain on the books and under legal challenge by Earthjustice.
"Secretary Salazar has signaled a clean break from the 'drill everywhere' mentality of the Bush administration," said Robin Cooley, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents the conservation organizations. "However, there is still a big ongoing problem with the Bush-era blueprints for how vast areas of public lands in Utah will be managed in the future. These Bush-era plans open huge areas of untouched wild lands to oil and gas development and off-road vehicle use. We are hopeful that Secretary Salazar will take a similar thoughtful and balanced approach to reconsidering these plans."
Earthjustice represents Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Center for Native Ecosystems, Utah Rivers Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Red Rock Forests.
For more information about the December 19 lease sale, including maps and photos, visit http://www.suwa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=December2008_LeaseParcelMaps
Robin Cooley, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9611
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.