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In our opinion: Enough dithering over leases

Published: Sunday, July 18 2010 12:12 a.m. MDT

Businessman George Burnett

Deseret News

When he took over as secretary of the Interior under newly elected President Barack Obama, Ken Salazar rescinded 77 oil and gas leases that recently had been auctioned in Utah, claiming they had been rushed through in a flawed process by the Bush administration, which was hurrying, supposedly, on an ideological bent to grant the leases before the change of administrations.

An independent investigation conducted by Interior's Office of Inspector General, belatedly released last week, says that, essentially, is a bunch of hogwash. No evidence exists to support Salazar's contention. In fact, the leases were auctioned after seven years of rigorous study, and no one applied any pressure to get it done before a new president took office. If anyone put ideology ahead of study, it apparently was the new administration, not the old.

Also significant is the fact that this latest report was made public only after a Uintah County commissioner was tipped to its contents and filed a request through the federal Freedom of Information Act. It is dated Dec. 28, 2009. The delay was an oversight, according to an Interior Department official. It should be noted that an earlier study conducted by the Department of the Interior, which rubber stamped the secretary's notion of a "flawed" process, was released without anyone having to ask.

Since he rescinded the leases, Salazar has decided to reauction 17 of them, reject eight and submit the rest to further review. Given the rigorous review these parcels already have undergone, that review should be expedited. If the department has specific concerns about leases that would ruin vistas in national parks, that is one thing. But the secretary justified rescinding the leases because of allegations of a rush job and improper political pressure, and those now have been discounted as factors.

Many Utahns are understandably tired of the federal dithering and the endless stall tactics. Rescinding these leases has likely cost the state millions already. Officials in Uintah county estimate the county lost 3,000 jobs in 2009, and Duchesne lost 1,000 jobs. They, together with Carbon County, have sued the Department of the Interior. This investigation certainly won't hurt their cause.

It would be naive to think that politics plays no role in BLM decisions. But given the nation's energy needs, the system should not be allowed to drag through years of endless study with no resolution in sight.

An Associated Press report last year estimated the federal government was holding nearly $100 million that has been paid for energy leases in the Rocky Mountains that are being delayed for one reason or another. Most are the subject of environmental protests or lawsuits, which seem to be filed as a matter of course. While Salazar at least returned the money that was paid for the 77 leases he rescinded, one would think an administration concerned about jobs in a tough economy would do more to speed up a process that could stimulate local economies as it eased the nation's energy needs.

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