Judge Dee Benson stands by ruling in oil and gas lawsuit

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 4:36 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has decided he will not revisit arguments raised in a lawsuit brought by some rural Utah counties and three energy companies over oil and gas leases that were rescinded by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Despite urgings earlier this week by attorneys representing the companies and Uintah, Duchesne and Carbon counties, Judge Dee Benson said Friday he is barred from revisiting issues already presented and any new arguments are "unpermissive."

Mark Ward, who represents the counties, says he will appeal to the 10th Circuit in Denver.

"The district court did not agree or disagree with this argument, but said instead that the argument is not a permissible one to make in a motion to reconsider," Ward said. "We take that to mean we should pursue the arguments on appeal."

The counties and energy companies brought suit against the U.S. Department of Interior after Salazar rescinded 77 controversial oil and gas leases bid on in a December 2008 auction in Salt Lake City.

Salazar said he was pulling the leases because they were located too close to national parks and wilderness areas in Utah and were only offered as the result of rushed "midnight" decision of the Bush administration prior to President Barack Obama taking office.

On Feb. 6, 2009, Salazar sent an internal memo to deputy director Ken Hoffman of the Utah Bureau of Land Management office, directing him to pull the leases.

On Feb. 12, Hoffman sent a letter to the successful bidders, informing them of Salazar's decision.

Ward said the suit was brought on May 13, exactly 90 days after Hoffman's letter was sent.

Benson ruled last September that although Salazar's actions were later proven to be wrong and outside his legal authority, the suit could not go forward because it was brought too late. Benson said the time clock started ticking on Feb. 6 when Salazar issued the memo, according to the language in the Mineral Leasing Act.

Ward and attorneys for the energy companies said it was only after Hoffman informed the bidders that the leases were pulled that the actual "decision" of the secretary was in effect and the "hammer came down."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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