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US Blocks Drilling At 60 Sites In Utah -- Approval Process Under Bush "Mishandled"

JOAN LOWY   10/ 8/09 09:56 PM ET   AP

Utah

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that oil and gas drilling will be permitted on some of the Utah land parcels near national parks that were hurriedly readied for leasing in the waning days of the Bush administration.

Salazar said at a media briefing that 17 parcels were approved for drilling and eight rejected. But no decision has been made on the fate of the majority of the disputed lands – 52 parcels totaling 69,373 acres. He said more work needs to be done to determine if those lands qualify for oil and gas leasing.

In some cases, the remaining work is minor, he said. For other parcels, the remaining issues are more substantive and it's unclear if they will ultimately be made available for leasing, he said.

The disputed parcels are all in eastern or northeastern Utah, and much the land borders national parks and other areas prized for their vistas and their recreational and cultural amenities.

All the lands totalling 77 parcels are under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. The review found extensive problems with how BLM employees have made decisions regarding which lands should be offered for leasing. Interior officials said those problems often stemmed from a lack of clarity about how leasing determinations should be made, resulting in differing interpretations by employees.

"The oil and gas resources under our public lands are an important part of our energy future, but we must ensure that development is happening in the right way and in the right places," Salazar said.

He said he was instituting a series of reforms that will bring more clarity to the leasing process for employees and more certainty for energy companies.

The Bush administration's decision to offer the land for drilling drew fire from environmentalists and historic preservationists who said drilling might harm nearby parks and other protected lands.

Salazar was condemned by the oil industry for scrapping the leases weeks after taking office, but all the drilling parcels had already been delayed by a federal lawsuit that still is not fully resolved.

Although the bulk of the original parcels could eventually before offered for leasing, Salazar said the review confirmed his original judgment that the Bush administration mishandled the leases.

But he added: "I don't think anyone acted nefariously."

The 17 parcels where drilling was deemed appropriate total 26,243 acres. Interior officials said the land will be offered for leasing, but they couldn't be sure when – probably next year.

The eight parcels totaling 7,670 acres will not be made available for leasing because of the scenic, recreational and cultural amenities, Salazar said. Photos of those lands displayed at the briefing showed scenic vistas, multihued mountains, and red rock cliffs and spires.

Drilling supporters pointed to portions of the review that said Bush administration officials correctly followed leasing procedures.

"This report proves what I've been saying all along – that the Utah BLM office followed the proper procedures for reviewing the proposed lease parcels that were sold last year," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

The Obama administration has "substituted the rule of executive whim for the rule of law, creating another huge vacuum of uncertainty for future BLM leasing decisions," Bennett said in a statement.

Bennett held up Senate confirmation of Salazar's chief deputy, David Hayes, while demanding the administration revisit the leasing issue.

Environmentalists said they were pleased by the review.

"We think the report is an astounding rejection of the Bush administration policy of drill here, drill now," said Steve Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that sued to block the leases.

A key part of that lawsuit remains unresolved – environmentalists' challenge to the management plan for BLM lands in Utah drawn up during the Bush administration. The 77 parcels were made available for leasing under the plan.

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Filed by Katherine Goldstein  |