In a last ditch effort to prevent Friday’s scheduled oil and natural gas lease auction, environmental groups Wednesday sued the Interior Department to prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from auctioning drilling rights in eastern Utah.

BLM initially proposed auctioning 241 parcels on 359,450 acres, but the federal agency removed more than half of the offering (see Daily GPI, Dec. 16). BLM deferred leasing in several controversial areas: Nine Mile Canyon, the Desolation Canyon area and some coalfields. It also withdrew 23 parcels on 38,000 acres at the request of the National Park Service, and it deferred another 80,015 acres in west-central Utah.

However, a coalition of environmental groups led by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wants the lease sale completely blocked, and it filed the federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Joining the NRDC are the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“These are places that should be preserved forever, for all generations,” said Rep. Bruce Baird (D-WA). Baird and representatives from the environmental groups participated in a press conference that was held in Washington, DC. The lease sale, Baird said, is a “final insult from an administration that has done so much to destroy this country.”

Actor Robert Redford, a long-time Utah resident, participated in the NRDC press conference from Los Angeles via satellite. Redford, a trustee of the NRDC, called the Bush administration “morally criminal” for announcing the lease sale on Election Day in November to avoid public comment. The BLM Utah lease sale is expected to be the last one conducted under President Bush’s administration.

BLM officials could not comment on the lawsuit. However, a spokesperson noted that after any BLM auction is held, the federal agency will not issue any leases until all of the protests on the parcels “have been satisfactorily resolved. In some cases, protests will be granted and bid money will be returned.”

BLM’s federal office in Utah also posted information on its website to explain the upcoming lease and to dispel charges that the auction was a “fire sale.”

“This is an incorrect characterization of the quarterly oil and gas lease sale,” BLM stated. “The BLM is required by law to conduct lease sales on at least a quarterly basis…Moreover, 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. Preparing for a lease sale requires a significant amount of time and extensive analysis and evaluation. It requires a lengthy process to prepare for lease sales.”

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