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DC Judge Blocks Efforts to Complete Utah Lease Sale

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) again is stalled in its efforts to allow drilling in parts of southeastern Utah after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent completing a recent lease sale.

BLM's Utah office had planned to auction around 360,000 acres in southeastern Utah for oil and natural gas drilling. Following protests, BLM whittled the planned sale to a total of 164,000 acres. A few days before the planned sale in mid-December, seven environmental groups sued to block the sale (see NGI, Dec. 15, 2008), but the auction went forward on Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City. Hundreds of protesters marched outside the BLM office, and authorities said bidding was disrupted inside by a University of Utah student who apparently tried to bid on parcels that he had no intention of buying (see NGI, Dec. 22, 2008).

When the auction was tentatively completed, BLM reported that producers had spent a total of $7.47 million to drill on almost 149,000 acres that are located on 116 parcels. Bidders were required to pay for the leases they won at the auction, and BLM would have been allowed to deposit the payments on Monday. Once BLM had cashed the deposits, the leases would have been final.

A federal judge in Washington, DC, Saturday granted a TRO to the environmental groups. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in a five-page ruling said the Department of Interior had not completed a sufficient environmental analysis, particularly on how air quality around Utah's Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument might become degraded because of drilling.

"Because of the threat of irreparable harm to public land if the leases are issued, the balancing of equities also tips in favor" of the environmental groups, Urbina wrote.

Kathleen Sgamma, a spokeswoman for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, called Urbina's ruling a setback. The energy industry, she said, thought adequate analysis and protections already were in place.

"We are obviously very disappointed that the issuance of the leases will be held up," said Sgamma. "This is a setback for energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions." She noted that the lease purchase was not a "green light" to drill. "Those protesting the sale often forget that natural gas and oil activity in Utah occupies much less than 1% of public land. With current technology and industry practices, producers are able to develop vital energy resources now, and reclaim the land to its original condition soon afterwards."

The temporary restraining order only buys time, said a spokeswoman for one of the environmental groups, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The order will be in effect for several weeks until a court date for hearing is set.

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