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Protest Calls Upcoming BLM Sale a 'Midnight Fire Sale'

A coalition of six conservation groups has filed a formal administrative protest with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), calling its lease sale in Utah on Friday (Dec. 19) a "midnight fire sale."

The protest challenges a decision by the Interior Department BLM's to auction off 92 parcels of land in Utah for oil and natural gas leasing and development, including such areas as the White River, Labyrinth Canyon and the benches east of Canyonlands Nation Park, according to the six groups.

Bringing the challenge were the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club.

The BLM in Utah disputed claims that the onshore lease sale, the last one to be held by the Bush administration, was an "unnecessary fire sale" of public lands to energy developers. "The upcoming sale is not a last minute effort to allow for oil and gas development on public lands prior to an administration change. Quarterly oil and gas lease sales are never thrown together," the agency said.

Nor does the BLM "arbitrarily and capriciously" choose lands for oil and gas leasing without any regard to significant resources that may be located on those lands or affected by energy development, it said.

"The protested parcels being offered in the December oil and gas lease sale have failed to consider the cumulative impacts of leasing and all other activities likely to take place on the respective BLM [lands]," the conservation groups countered. "BLM has failed to meet its obligation to include adequate information in the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] documents upon which this lease sale relies so that it can evaluate reasonably foreseeable significant environmental effects."

The announcement of the lease sale followed BLM's issuance of six resource management plans for public lands across eastern and southern Utah, which opened up vast swaths of land to oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicles (see NGI, Nov. 3). The coalition said it plans to legally challenge the plans.

BLM said the upcoming Utah lease sale will offer oil and gas parcels on a total of 276,025 acres of public land and geothermal parcels totaling 146,339 acres. It noted that it has chosen to defer leasing in the Nine Mile Canyon area below the canyon rim and the Desolation Canyon area to further review stipulations and mitigation measures for this year. In addition, parcels over coalfields are being deferred to avoid potential conflicts with underground mining. The BLM said further changes may be made prior to the lease sale.

The BLM said it has deferred 23 parcels and portions of three other parcels on approximately 38,000 acres at the request of the National Park Service (NPS). It also has deferred a split estate parcel in Spanish Valley and, at the request of Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and the governor's task force on outdoor recreation, has deferred from the lease sale a parcel near the Arches National Monument and parcels south of Arches.

The announcement of the Utah lease sale last month drew fire from NPS in Denver for BLM's apparent failure to give NPS adequate advance notice to evaluate the potential environmental impact of a proposed lease sale (see NGI, Nov. 17). The two Interior agencies have since smoothed over their differences, with the BLM Utah State Director Selma Sierra agreeing to defer from the sale all parcels that continued to be a concern to NPS.

The agencies also renewed their 1993 memorandum of understanding regarding how BLM Utah and the NPS work together on oil and gas offerings.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that President-elect Obama is expected to to use his executive authority to block these new oil and natural gas leases on environmentally sensitive lands in Utah when he takes office in January. "One Bush-era measure Mr. Obama is likely to address quickly are the new oil and gas leases approved recently by the Department of Interior that would open up for drilling land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in southern Utah's desert. Environmentalists said drilling in the area could potentially damage the parks and surrounding land."

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