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Judge says Salazar wrong, but suit too late

Sun Advocate publisher

In a ruling on Wednesday afternoon, Federal District Court Judge Dee Benson stated that while Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar was not really within his power to withdraw 77 gas and oil leases that had been sold to private companies in 2008, the plaintiff companies that filed the suit were past the deadline for doing so when they filed last year.

"The plain language of the Mineral Leasing Act mandates the Secretary of Interior to accept bids and issue leases as part of the competitive leasing process for oil and gas leases," wrote the judge in the conclusion of the ruling. "This mandate truncates the discretion the Secretary generally possesses to determine whether or not to issue a lease. In this case, the Secretary exceeded his statutory authority by withdrawing leases after determining which parcels were to be leased and after holding a competitive lease sale during which the BLM named the plaintiffs high responsible bidders. Ultimately though, the plaintiffs' claims are time barred. Faced with a strict statute of limitations, the plaintiffs failed to file their suit within 90 days of the Secretary's final decision. Under 30 U.S.C. § 226-2, this is too late.

Accordingly, judgment is entered in favor of the defendants."

The case began as a lease sale that seemed by some to be hastily arranged by the Bureau of Land Management in late 2008 just before President George Bush left office. One of the things the BLM did not do was give enough warning to the National Park Service of their intentions. Parcels near Arches National Park were with in the realm of the sale and so consequently conservation and environmentalists became upset about the sale even before it took place. They also were concerned about other parcels in Carbon, Uintah and Duchesne Counties as well.

The sale went on and the companies paid their deposits for the leases they were high bidders on. This was the same sale that environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was involved with, where he tried to bid on parcels although he had no money and no intention of developing the leases.

On Dec. 22, 2008, just three days after the sale, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed a motion to place a restraining order and injunction to stop the distribution of the parcels. The district court it was filed with, in Washington D.C. issued an order for the leases not to be distributed.

After the Barack Obama administration was sworn in, he appointed Salazar as Secretary of the Interior. One of Salazar's first actions was to withdraw the leases. This brought on a storm of fiery protests from not only companies that were involved in the sales, but citizens and officials throughout eastern Utah that felt the denial of the leases was not only wrong but would badly damage the economies of the area.

Some of the companies involved filed suit with a claim that the federal defendants in the suit acted arbitrarily and carpriciously by withdrawing the parcels. In addition there were also "county plaintiffs" (listed above) who joined in the suit.

The federal governmental agencies that were the defendants were also joined by environmental groups (namely the SUWA and some others) that the court allowed "intervenor status."

The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (part of the Interior Department) but were told that the board did not have the power to do anything to change the status of the leases. It was after that, on May 13, 2009, that the companies and the counties filed their suit, more than 90 days after the decision.

Eastern Utah energy experts have been saying ever since that the lease withdrawal was not only hurting America's energy supplies, but also were damaging eastern Utah economy. Not long after the withdrawal of the leases, drilling rigs for both oil and gas became scarce in the three county area.

Carbon County Commissioner John Jones said on Wednesday the withdrawal of the leases caused a "tremendous impact" on businesses and industries in the local area.

"The drilling companies felt insecure about investing anywhere on federal lands because of that decision, so they took their rigs and left for the Dakotas," he said.

That means that even if drilling would eventually be allowed, it will be delayed because the equipment is gone. Jones also said that motels and restaurants lost a lot of customers because drill rig and exploration crews were filling rooms and tables on a daily basis.

"When I went back to Washington to the Interior Department I tried to explain to these people that the decisions they make back East hit us in the West like a tsunami hits an island far away from an earthquake," he said.

But that testimony apparently meant little to many of the people Jones talked to.

As of Wednesday afternoon it was unclear as to what will happen next, but more legal action may be on the horizon.

John Surfustini also contributed to this story.

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