Salt Lake City, UT
A federal court has withdrawn its approval of a 2003 legal settlement between Utah and the federal government that opened millions of acres of undeveloped western lands to development. The court’s action immediately threw into doubt planned government oil and gas lease auctions scheduled for later this year and next on some of these lands. The action came at the urging of Earthjustice.
The 2003 settlement grew out of a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah against the Clinton administration challenging federal procedures for identifying and temporarily protecting wild public lands. The settlement was struck by then-Utah governor Mike Leavitt, now the head of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The Bush administration settled the lawsuit by agreeing to Utah’s request to abandon the protective regulations. Since the settlement was finalized, the federal government has used it to open unroaded, pristine portions of southern Utah and Colorado to oil and gas development.
Earthjustice challenged the settlement with the aim of getting the wilderness protections back in place. The court’s withdrawal of its approval of the settlement came at a hearing Monday where Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell presented arguments seeking to have the settlement temporarily set aside while the court considers permanently barring it.
“We’re hopeful because the judge homed in on the real issue, the Bush administration’s backhanded deals to open America’s wild lands to its friends in the oil and gas industry. Any oil or gas company thinking about drilling and pumping from these wild public lands better think twice,” said Earthjustice attorney Jim Angell. “The public has a great interest in keeping these lands wild. There are lots of other places where they can drill.”
Earthjustice is representing Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, California Wilderness Coalition, and Idaho Conservation League.