After cutting a number of parcels around national parks in Utah last week, the United States Bureau of Land Management decided Dec. 2 to remove several sections in the Nine Mile and Desolation Canyon area from the federal agency's mineral lease sale.
The sale of 360,000 acres of leases was announced by the BLM in early November. But with Tuesday's announcement, the total acreage has dropped to less than 280,000 acres.
Protests on the initial BLM sale came from various environmental and conservation groups, but were probably most loudly voiced by the National Park Service.
The leases could have affected Arches and Canyonlands National Park as well as Dinosaur National Monument.
According to a federal agency press release, the second round of cuts came because the "BLM has chosen to defer leasing in the Nine Mile Canyon area below the canyon rim and in the Desolation Canyon are to further review stipulations and mitigation measures for the areas."
While the BLM has been under attack from many groups since the announced sale, the agency indicates that it is required to conduct quarterly auctions of oil and gas leases.
"In doing so," the agency pointed out that the BLM "must ensure the appropriate amount of accessibility to energy resources necessary for the nation's security while recognizing that special and unique non-energy resources can be preserved."
The federal agency also permanently cancelled the sale of some parcels for oil and gas that are connected with coal mining.
"This action by the BLM was a wonderful surprise," said Pam Miller, chairperson of the Nine Mile Coalition. "We just don't want to see wells in the bottom of the canyon. The BLM's new resource management plan for the canyon indicates there would be no surface occupation in the canyon, yet there were parcels for sale there. We are happy they are rethinking this. It wouldn't fit in with the tourism in the canyon or the idea of a backway."
On the other hand, Jim Felton of Bill Barrett Corporation had a different opinion about the actions of the BLM.
"This certainly isn't a surprise," said Felton. "Every BLM sale is appealed nowadays and, from our point of view, the seven year process that led up to the new resource management plan is being disregarded by a certain segment of the population."
The Nine Mile Canyon area has been one of the biggest locations under question related to the mineral lease sale.
The Nine Mile area has already sparked debate because conservationists claim the truck traffic traveling to the Tavaputs Plateau is damaging thousands of rock art images that populate the canyon walls.
"Carbon County and the Bill Barrett Corporation have been working like crazy to find some way to control the dust, but it is still an issue until something is found that will control it, to protect the resources in the canyon," stated Miller.
While no drilling has been actually conducted in the canyon at the present point in time, the mineral lease sale could have brought some of that below the rim.
While a lot of the land below the rim in the canyon is privately owned - primarily the flat areas - the BLM still controls some public parcels that were withdrawn from the sale.
"It seems no one has a real handle on how much private versus government land there is in the bottom of the canyon," commented Miller. "I have seen all kinds of percentages of one as compared to the other. Some of the private landowners in the canyon do have mineral rights with their lands and could sell the rights to drill on those. We would hope that doesn't happen. And for some of the others, the BLM could sell the rights to the minerals below those lands and that could be a problem, too."
There has also been controversy concerning gas production support infrastructure that has been constructed in the canyon as well, such as the compressor plant near Daddy Canyon. But Miller said that the Nine Mile Coalition does not oppose the rights of companies to drill above the rim of the canyon.
"The coalition does not oppose gas development in the area," said Miller. "We sometimes get lumped in with the environmental groups on this issue. We are a preservation group. BBC has every right to explore and develop gas, but we must also protect the cultural and natural resources in Nine Mile Canyon itself. That is what we want to see done."
The Dec. 19 sale is not the last mineral lease auction the BLM will conduct and the rethinking of selling off parcels set aside for now could go either way.
The federal agency has another mineral lease auction scheduled for March and the same parcels could come up for sale in the future, according to officials.
Sales of various parcels could also be affected by the policies of the incoming presidential administration as well.
Opposition groups to drilling in many areas claim that the Bush administration has been lax on protecting the environment and other natural resources when it comes to allowing energy development.
Representatives of the incoming administration had input into the pulling back of parcels from the Dec. 19 sale.
Nevertheless, Felton indicated that the Barrett company feels America loses when something like Tuesday's action takes place.
"Aside from taxes, mineral money is the biggest source of revenue this country has," stated Felton. "And our country doesn't get the energy that the American actually own either. If you look at what is going on in government today, with all the bailouts and talk of federal loans, the funds these kinds of projects generate for the federal government are not insignificant."