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As President, Obama May Block New Utah Leases

November 17, 2008
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President-elect Barack Obama may put his stamp on energy policy early when he takes office in January by using his executive authority to block new oil and natural gas leases on environmentally sensitive lands in Utah, according to a published report.

"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," the Wall Street Journal reported last Monday. However, Obama could face a political backlash from those who would view this as reneging on his campaign promise to support drilling..

Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced on Election Day that 241 proposed oil and gas parcels covering nearly 360,000 acres would be up for sale on Dec. 19 following a 30-day public comment period. This would be the final onshore lease sale by the Bush administration. The announcement drew fire from another Interior agency, the National Park Service (NPS) in Denver. "Typically the BLM gives the National Park Service a 90-day heads-up to evaluate the potential environmental impact of a proposed lease sale. This time we got six hours notice...Our feathers are sort of ruffled," an NPS spokesman told NGI.

He noted that NPS was not opposed to oil and gas development in Utah. Its only beef was with BLM's failure to properly notify the NPS of the proposed sale. The spokesman said the two agencies were trying to work out their differences.

Environmental groups flat out object to the proposed oil and gas sale. "What makes this action by the Interior Department so deplorable is that BLM itself determined these areas to be wilderness-quality lands,” said Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “Nonetheless, BLM is condemning these lands to a future of oil rigs and gas pipelines and almost certain disqualification from future wilderness designation."

Bobby McEnaney, an expert on public lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioned the need for this lease sale. “At a time when oil companies already hold millions of acres of public lands under lease -- but not being developed -- there is simply no reason for BLM to rush ahead with this lease sale."

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