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Utah BLM Defers Energy Leasing Near National Parks
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, December 15, 2008 (ENS) - This coming Friday, the Bureau of Land Management Utah will offer over 300,000 acres for energy leases in a hotly disputed lease sale, but the federal agency has deferred leasing some of the most contentious parcels.

The final list for the December 19 sale includes 132 oil and gas parcels totaling 163,935 acres and 44 geothermal parcels totaling 142,333 acres in seven Utah counties - Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand, San Juan and Uintah - including some of the most wild and remote public lands in Utah.

Taking account of protests from National Park Service officials over lease sales near two parks and a monument, the BLM said in a statement Friday that discussions with the Park Service have resulted in deferral of all or part of 23 lease parcels totaling 37,731 acres near national parks.

The lease sales at issue are on lands close to Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument and within view of Canyonlands National Park.
Weathered rocks in Canyonlands National Park (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Additional parcels were deferred in the vicinity of Nine Mile and Desolation Canyons and others were removed for split estate concerns, wildlife issues or conflicts with existing coal mining operations, the BLM said. In a split estate situation, the BLM owns the mineral rights below the surface while another party owns the land surface.

BLM Utah deferred two parcels to provide the U.S. Forest Service with more time to conduct analysis on lands near the existing geothermal plant at Cove Fort.

An additional eight parcels were deferred to provide time for further consultation and analysis regarding potential impacts to cultural resources and historical settings and to address tribal concerns regarding Traditional Cultural Properties.

In consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office and Native American Tribes, the BLM determined that "the important visual nature associated with some parcels may be affected by geothermal exploration and development."

Further consultation is needed on a site-specific basis to protect the Pony Express National Historic Trail corridor, the agency said.

Last week a coalition of conservation groups representing more than one million Americans filed a formal administrative protest with the Utah BLM state office to protect land and resources from what the groups call "a midnight fire sale."

The protest challenges BLM's decision to auction 92 of the parcels, covering about one-third of the offered lands - approximately 100,000 acres.

Protests challenging other parts of the lease sale were filed by a number of other interests, including the Outdoor Industry Association and other businesses, a coalition of historic preservation organizations led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a group of Utah based river guides and outfitters.

The protesting groups argue that there is no need to auction these environmentally sensitive lands. "There is certainly no shortage of public lands in Utah already under lease but not in production. As of the end of fiscal year 2006, there were over 4.6 million acres of BLM managed land under lease but less than one million acres in production," argues the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The lease sale follows the BLM's equally controversial issuance of six management plans for public lands across eastern and southern Utah, which opened up much of red rock country to oil and gas drilling and off-road vehicles. The conservationists also plan to legally challenge these plans, which affect 11 million acres of public land.

The records of decision marking final approval for the six resource management plans were issued at the end of October, less than three months before the close of the Bush administration. Planning began in 2001.

The BLM says it took seven years to write these resource management plans because the agency "was committed during the planning process to balance protecting environmentally sensitive areas while supporting energy resources in Utah."

Under the new plans, a percentage of the acres open to oil and gas leasing are subject to stricter environmental controls than previously, with a smaller percentage of the lands within these planning areas unavailable for leasing under any circumstances, the agency says.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says the six records of decision were rushed through so that these lease sales could be offered to a demanding industry before the Bush administration is out of office.

"BLM officials have openly admitted to us that they switched the date to allow them to begin selling leases in some of the state's most wild and remote public lands - lands that had been blocked from leasing by a landmark SUWA legal victory in 2006 and several administrative appeals board decisions that followed," says the conservation group on its website.

In 2006, a federal court in Utah ruled that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by offering for lease 16 parcels of public lands that, "according the BLM's own Wilderness Inventory, are remarkable, wilderness quality landscapes."

Energy leases are issued for a primary term of 10 years and will continue as long as oil or gas is produced in paying quantities. The holder of a federal lease must obtain specific permits prior to any surface disturbing activities. If exploration does occur and the lease begins producing, the federal government will collect a 12.5 percent royalty on production. In accordance with the Mineral Leasing Act, collected revenues will be split between the BLM and the state.

The December 19 lease sale will take place in Salt Lake City at the BLM Utah State Office, 440 West 200 South, Suite 500 in the Monument Conference Room.

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