Appeals court weighs energy leases near Utah parks

Thursday , January 19, 2012 - 1:07 PM

National Parks Drilling

FIlE - Tourists sit quietly as they view Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, in August...

Colleen Slevin

DENVER-- A federal appeals court must decide if the Obama administration gave energy companies enough notice that it was scrapping Bush-era energy leases near national parks in Utah, the auction for which prompted an environmental activist to drive up prices with his bidding in an act of civil disobedience.

Arguments before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday focused on whether Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement of the decision in the opening weeks of the new administration should count as notice.

The issue is important because energy companies had 90 days to appeal, and if the clock started ticking then, the energy companies filed too late.

The case involves leases near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument that were auctioned off in the final month of the President George W. Bush's administration.

Salazar has said he later voided the leases because they were at the doorstep to Utah's redrock parks -- Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. He also faulted the Bureau of Land Management for failing to consult the National Park Service before leasing the lands, and he questioned whether an environmental analysis justifying the sale was adequate.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled in September 2010 that a lawsuit brought by energy producers challenging the cancellation of the 77 oil and gas drilling leases was filed too late. Benson concluded the companies failed to file their lawsuit within 90 days of Salazar's February 2009 decision.

The judge wrote that Salazar exceeded his authority by withdrawing the leases but ultimately ruled in his favor because the companies missed their deadline.

Salazar's attorneys argued those reasons were good enough for him to scrap the 77 leases. Benson disagreed.

The auction on Dec. 19, 2008, was troubled from the start. A Utah college student grabbed a bidder's paddle to run up prices and take parcels between Arches and Canyonlands national parks for safekeeping.

Tim DeChristopher, who acknowledged he didn't have $1.7 million to pay for his leases, was convicted of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction. He was sentenced in July to two years in prison, fined $10,000 and ordered to serve three years of probation. DeChristopher said he disrupted the auction as an act of civil disobedience to focus attention on climate change.

Thursday's hearing in Denver was the latest public show of conflict between the Obama administration and the energy industry.

Last week, the administration banned new hard rock mining on more than a million acres near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves. And on Wednesday, the president blocked the proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas, though the issue may not be dead.

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