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Judge says Utah counties' drilling-lease lawsuit too late

By Geoff Liesik and Mary Bernard

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Sept. 2 2010 12:24 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A U.S. District Court judge in Utah has ruled that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was wrong to yank 77 oil and gas leases that were auctioned off by the Bureau of Land Management in December 2008.

Nevertheless, Judge Dee Benson has ruled in Salazar's favor, finding that the lawsuit challenging his actions was filed after the time limit for such a suit had expired.

The suit was brought against Salazar and other federal officials by Carbon, Duchesne and Uintah counties and three energy companies that successfully bid on some of the pulled leases.

"In this case, the secretary exceeded his statutory authority by withdrawing leases after determining which parcels were to be leased and after holding a competitive lease sale," Benson wrote in an 18-page decision and order made public Wednesday.

"Ultimately though, the plaintiffs' claims are time barred," the judge added. "Faced with a strict statute of limitations, the plaintiffs failed to file their suit within 90 days of the secretary's final decision."

Duchesne County Commission Chairman Kent Peatross responded to the ruling with a mix of resignation and satisfaction.

"They can manipulate the rules and make it work like they did," Peatross said. "The statute of limitations … there's just no way around that one. But to have (the judge) recognize that Salazar and his group were out of line, yeah, that is a victory."

Peatross said the real reason for the counties filing suit against Salazar was not necessarily to have the contested leases reinstated.

Instead, he said, elected officials were trying to ensure that the federal government's actions did not set precedent for future oil and gas lease sales in Utah.

Salazar has said he voided the leases due to their proximity to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. He also claimed the BLM in Utah failed to consult with the National Park Service before leasing the lands, an allegation supported by a review of the process completed by the Interior Department's own inspector general.

Attorneys for Salazar argued that his stated reasons justified his decision to yank the 77 leases. Benson disagreed, writing that the secretary's decision "ran afoul of the Mineral Lease Act."

Still, the judge noted that the complaint against Salazar wasn't filed until May 13, 2009, more than 100 days after Salazar issued his final decision in an inter-agency memorandum, putting the suit outside the 90-day statute of limitations.

"The plaintiffs' counsel had ample notice of the secretary's decision and sufficient time to comply with the statute of limitations," Benson wrote.

Peatross said Duchesne County commissioners will now meet with their counterparts in Carbon and Uintah counties to decide whether to appeal Benson's ruling.

"We are just trying to support our neighbors, Carbon and Uintah, who really got kicked in the throat on this one," the commissioner said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake declined to comment on Benson's ruling when contacted Wednesday by e-mail. Efforts to reach Salazar's office for comment were also unsuccessful.

Contributing: Associated Press

e-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com, mbernard@vernal.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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