WASHINGTON - The Bureau of Land Management has announced it will be deferring 96,960 acres of federal lands in southern Utah from the proposed oil and gas lease auction on Tuesday, igniting frustration from members of Utah's congressional delegation.
This latest deferment brings the total number of acres withdrawn from the lease sale to more than 800,000. The BLM's Price and Vernal field offices will instead offer 44,021 acres for oil and gas leases, 5 percent of what could have been offered, according to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Natural Resources Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee.
Much of the targeted area is in Emery County around the San Rafael Swell and is considered an archaeologically sensitive area, which potential drilling could spoil. BLM officials say the deferment will give them more time to address concerns over potential impacts to the Old Spanish Trail.
In a statement, Juan Palma, Utah director of BLM, said he is committed to responsible development of energy resources on Utah's public lands. "We are deferring these particular lands from the upcoming sale to provide for additional review and consideration of the potential impacts leasing poses to natural and cultural resources," he said.
Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch issued a joint statement saying the move shows the Obama administration's promises of transparency and open communication are empty.
"At a time when the state of Utah, local counties and Utah's federal delegation are participating in a large-scale initiative to resolve many long-standing public land issues, this last-minute bait and switch only reinforces the widespread belief that, under this administration, BLM is becoming a vehicle for policies created by radical environmentalists," Lee said.
Lee said the maneuver discourages companies from participating in future auctions.
With the richness in oil and gas reserves at stake, access to the land has a big financial impact on the state and its revenue stream.
Michael McKee, a Uintah County commissioner, estimated his county lost upward to $370 million in revenue during the 11-day federal shutdown earlier this year, due to federal lands not being accessible for gas or oil extraction. Earlier this month he told a legislative committee charged with considering the potential loss of federal funds that the BLM has granted 1,400 applications for a permit to drill this year for the county, with an existing backlog of 1,500. He estimated there was a loss in gas and oil revenue of $33.6 million a day when the federal lands were closed down.
Bishop said BLM's decision was an appeasement to special interest groups. He said it is no coincidence the areas withdrawn from the lease sale are located within the boundaries of a 9 million-acre new wilderness area proposed by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.
Holt's website said he stands for protecting the nation's environmental crown jewels and is committed to safeguarding the country's national parks and preserves. It also said he is a leader in promoting environmentally sound alternative energy sources that do not harm the environment.
"The irony of the situation is that the deferred lease areas are within, or adjacent to, existing federal and state oil and gas leases, which currently coexist in harmony with outdoor recreation. By succumbing to fear mongering from special interest groups, the BLM is further demonstrating the need for locally driven solutions that support balanced use of the public lands," Bishop said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was also critical of the move.
"Too often, opponents of high-paying energy jobs argue that we can't have both energy development and recreation. This is a false choice. We can have both, and rural Utah."
The federal government owns more than 67 percent of the land in Utah, and in 2012, lawmakers initiated a series of measures to try to force the federal government to turn over those lands to the state.
State Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who sponsored the measure to initiate the process in 2012, said power never concedes anything without a demand. He said lawmakers are ready to legislate and then litigate, if necessary, to gain control of federal lands, similar to what Eastern states enjoy.