Carbon, Uintah Basin counties sue U.S. Interior official
Carbon, Duchesne, and Uintah counties have filed a lawsuit challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's cancellation of 77 federal oil and gas leases.
Mike Lee, independent counsel for the counties, filed the suit in United States District Court on Wednesday.
The 25-page complaint alleges that Salazar exceeded his authority in withdrawing the leases, which were auctioned off by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in December 2008.
Lee said the counties examined the "legal and factual scenario" surrounding the yanked leases and determined they were each likely to lose hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in sales and use taxes, royalties and salaries for area residents.
"There's a massive trickle down effect from all of this," Lee said. "(The loss) definitely includes the counties' share of the royalties, but it's not limited to that. It's broader even than that."
Lee said after closer legal analysis, he determined Salazar doesn't have discretion to cancel leases once the parcels have been identified, auctioned off, and paid for.
"Once the companies ... have qualified as the highest bidder, have won at the auction, and have made the necessary payments, the Federal Mineral Leasing Act requires the secretary to issue the leases," Lee said. "It doesn't give him the discretion to say, 'No, never mind. I changed my mind.'"
Five oil and gas companies also filed federal lawsuits against Salazar last week in Utah making claims similar to those raised by the counties. Those suits seek to prevent the BLM and the U.S. Interior Department from refunding the companies' lease payments.
"Their interests are a little more immediate and obvious," Lee said of the lawsuits by Impact Energy Resources, Peak Royalty Holdings, Questar Exploration and Production Company, Twilight Resources, Par Five Exploration and two individuals who bid on leases.
"We're not doing this out of anger or spite," Lee added. "We're doing this in order to protect the interests of Uintah County, Duchesne County, and Carbon County, and the residents that live there because we think it's important to follow the law."
Carbon County commissioners, in a special meeting on Friday, unanimously agreed to move forward with the legal action.
Carbon Commissioner Mike Milovich said the counties could not only lose millions of potential dollars from the leases that have been withdrawn, but Salazar's actions could affect other present leases as well.
The Carbon commissioner said the secretary is ignoring the fact that the BLM's resource management plans for the area were worked on for seven years.
"We had everyone at the table to get this RMP in place," said Milovich. "We spent $43 million over those years developing all this and now he wants to throw everything out the window. The RMPs were created by the Interior Department, but now he says they are flawed."
Uintah Commissioner Mike McKee said county leaders are "unwilling to ignore illegal actions taken by the federal government that interfere with our ability to fund critical programs, including law enforcement and education."
"Salazar's decision conflicts with the federal government's own resource management plans to allow energy extraction as a permitted use of public lands," McKee said.
In February, Salazar voided the leases auctioned off in December because he said they were too close to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dinosaur National Monument. Some of the disputed leases were already on hold because of another federal lawsuit filed months ago in Washington, D.C., by several conservation groups.
Steve Bloch, attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he expects the lawsuits by the counties and the energy companies to be dismissed.
"Ultimately, discretion rests with the secretary on matters of leasing public lands," Bloch said, adding that Salazar has the authority to withdraw, review, re-evaluate and perhaps re-authorize leases.
"The counties lack standing," he said.
Bloch said the actions taken by the counties reflect the likelihood that the suit filed by SUWA and 11 other conservation groups last winter will succeed.
Uintah County stands to gain the most though if a judge requires Salazar to reinstate the leases. Of the 77 leases pulled by the secretary, 17 are in Uintah County; 16 are in Carbon County; and three are in Duchesne County. The counties are seeking to have all 36 leases returned to the highest bidder.
Duchesne County Commissioner Ron Winterton said the lawsuit is a proper use of taxpayer dollars given potential the economic impact if the Obama administration were to make a practice of canceling mineral leases.
"It affects the livelihood of everyone in the Basin," Winterton said. "If we don't stand up for our rights, we'll continue to see the economic stress get worse. We have to spend our tax dollars there. ... The government was totally in the wrong."
The counties each allocate funds for public lands litigation and will use those funds to press their suit against Salazar.
Kendra Barkoff, Salazar's press secretary, told the Associated Press he will reconsider the leases once President Barack Obama's pick for the number two job at the department is confirmed.
She did not address the lawsuit by the counties or the energy companies.
Contributing: to this article were Richard Shaw, Sun Advocate and Mary Bernard, Uintah Basin News Services. Paul Foy, Associated Press