Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supervisors exerted no pressure on staff to complete resource management plans (RMP) and did not violate any federal laws before conducting the controversial December 2008 natural gas and oil lease sale in Utah, the Interior Department's inspector general (IG) said in a report.
However, BLM contributed to the perception that the lease sale lacked proper environmental reviews because it failed to consult with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) about tracts for lease near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the Dinosaur National Monument, and for neglecting to remove the parcels when NPS officials objected to their sale, the IG found.
The report was completed last December but it was not posted for public review until last week. Utah officials asked for the document to be released; some county officials are suing Interior to reinstate 77 leases that were revoked by the Obama administration after the sale, which was conducted in the closing days of the Bush administration (see NGI, Oct. 12, 2009; Feb. 9, 2009; Dec. 22, 2008).
"Our investigation found no evidence to support the allegation that undue pressure was exerted on BLM personnel to complete the RMPs so that previously deferred lease parcels could be included in the lease sale prior to a change in White House administration," wrote John Dupuy, Interior's Assistant IG for Investigations. "We determined, however, that BLM contributed to the perception that the lease sale was rushed when BLM failed to provide advance notice to the National Park Service of a revised parcel list, refused to place parcels identified by the NPS back on the deferred list to allow further review of their eligibility for leasing and announced the lease sale on Election Day" 2008.
The investigation was referred to BLM Director Bob Abbey on Dec. 29, 2009 for him to take action "as deemed appropriate."
The 77 deferred leases, which then were valued at around $6.2 million, are at the center of a state lawsuit and an environmental lawsuit still to be decided. Environmental groups are challenging the original lease sale because they contend BLM allegedly ignored environmental laws when it approved land-use plans making the lease sale possible.
Meanwhile, Uintah, Carbon and Duchesne county officials want the disputed leases reinstated. The counties' lawsuit is scheduled to be heard this week by U.S. District Judge Dee Benson in Salt Lake City. Benson is to consider whether the decision to cancel some of the leases in the auction was made arbitrarily.
"The allegations of rushing and political influence were put out as excuses by Department of Interior for canceling these leases," said Mark Ward, an attorney who represents the counties. The IG report "is a relevant piece of evidence the court will take into consideration."
Meanwhile, an Interior spokeswoman defended Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to revoke the leases. The cancellations, she said, were based on factors not addressed by the IG report.
"The investigation focused narrowly on the issue of whether the Bush administration had improperly pressured BLM employees to speed up oil and gas planning documents and include sensitive areas in the last Utah lease sale under that administration," she said. Interior fully endorsed the report's conclusions, she noted. "The report has no bearing on the current administration's decision to withdraw the leases to conduct further reviews."
According to the IG report, interagency consultation involving gas and oil lease sales is customary. However, a memorandum of understanding that required BLM to notify NPS about the sale had expired before the December 2008 lease sale, the IG report found.
"This report from [Interior] confirms what we've been saying all along," said Kathleen Sgamma, Western Energy Alliance director of government affairs. "Given that the justifications for the withdrawal are incorrect, we hope the Interior secretary will reinstate these leases and award them to companies who legitimately purchased them at the lease sale."
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