SALT LAKE CITY -- The U.S. Department of the Interior moved to halt fast-track approvals for drilling across the Rocky Mountains in a legal settlement reached just hours before President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that his administration will open offshore oil and gas reserves to development.
Government lawyers said the timing of the two drilling-related deals was merely coincidental, and that resolution of the federal lawsuit late Tuesday had been in the works for several weeks.
That suit was brought in Salt Lake City federal court in 2008 by the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups that challenged the Bush administration's interpretation of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which allowed federal land managers in some cases to issue fast-track drilling permits without a full environmental review.
The U.S. attorney's office in Salt Lake City confirmed Wednesday that the settlement all but closes the loophole that approved nearly 7,000 oil and gas development projects from 2006 to 2008.
Most of the fast-tracked projects were approved in Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah. They included drilling new wells and adding pipelines and roads across public lands, according to the Government Accountability Office, which issued a report in September that was critical of the practice.
Government lawyers settled the case on behalf of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. His office didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press.
Salazar was busy Wednesday promoting a decision by Obama to open parts of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling.
Melodie Rydalch, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Salt Lake City, said it was coincidental that a federal settlement restricting onshore drilling was filed the night before Obama announced he would open offshore oil and gas resources to drilling and exploration from Virginia to Alaska.
An oil-industry lobby criticized the settlement and complained it was shut out of the negotiations.
"It's getting more and more difficult to operate onshore," said Kathleen Sgamma, government-affairs director for the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.
The lawsuit filed in 2008 against the Department of the Interior was brought by The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition.
The settlement means scenic and wild landscapes around the West "will get more analysis and a thoughtful approach to development," said Steve Bloch, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "That has been a hallmark of Secretary Salazar's approach."
Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, a showcase of ancient rock art panels, has seen increasing truck traffic from gas development on surrounding highlands called the West Tavaputs Plateau.
"We weren't party to the negotiations, but we don't object to terms of the settlement," said Duane Zavadil, a vice president at Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp, which is working on the West Tavaputs Plateau.
Bill Barrett Corp received fast-track approvals in 2008 to drill 30 gas wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau that are in production, Zavadil said. The company intervened to defend the Department of the Interior from the lawsuit.
The settlement doesn't curtail the operation of Bill Barrett's wells. As part of the settlement, however, federal land managers are studying the effects of dust kicked up by the company's trucks when they travel through Nine Mile Canyon to reach the wells, according to government lawyers.
The dust has been blamed for eroding the canyon's elaborate ancient rock etchings.
In addition, the federal Bureau of Land Management said it will launch a sweeping environmental study of drilling in the Nine Mile Canyon area and avoid using so-called categorical exclusions anywhere to expedite oil and gas projects, pending the release of new guidelines.
"We are pleased to have reached a settlement," BLM Director Bob Abbey said Wednesday. "This settlement is consistent with BLM's plans to issue additional guidance on when and how Section 390 categorical exclusions will be applied to oil and gas drilling projects."
Updated 3:40 p.m.
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Obama administration will limit the use of an administrative shortcut that has been used to approve thousands of drilling permits across the Rocky Mountains without full environmental reviews.
The policy change was reflected in the settlement late Tuesday of a lawsuit filed in Utah by environmental groups that challenged the Bush administration's interpretation of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The act allows federal land managers to fast-track drilling permits without ordering an environmental assessment of the consequences.
The U.S. attorney's office in Salt Lake City confirmed Wednesday that the settlement will all but close the loophole used to approve thousands of oil and gas wells from 2006 to 2008.
The government lawyers settled the case on behalf of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. His office didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press Wednesday.