SALT LAKE CITY — A legal challenge to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's controversial rescission of 77 oil and gas leases offered for bid in Utah was delivered a setback Thursday with an appellate court refusing to hear the case.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver turned back a request by energy companies and a trio of Utah counties to set a full panel of judges to reconsider a September 2012 ruling.
In that decision, the court agreed with U.S. District Judge Dee Benson's earlier ruling that the energy companies and the counties missed their opportunity to protest Salazar's actions because the 90-day window of appeal had closed.
Critics of the Bureau of Land Management resource plans that fostered issuing the leases long contended that they were part of a last-minute "giveaway to the oil and gas industry" in the waning days of the Bush administration in 2008.
The leases were the target of several official protests filed by numerous environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and were offered up at a downtown BLM auction marred by fraudulent bidding carried about by activist Tim DeChristopher.
The former University of Utah student was subsequently convicted on a pair of felonies in connection with the auction and sentenced to federal prison. He has since been paroled to a halfway house in Salt Lake City.
Within a couple of months of the auction and in action Salazar said was unrelated to the DeChristopher case, Salazar yanked the leases and said the leases needed additional scrutiny.
Some of the leases were subsequently reissued, some were held back and an independent review by the Interior Department's Solicitor General found no evidence that the BLM was rushed or pressured into putting the land on the table for possible oil or gas development.
Energy companies and the counties filed suit challenging Salazar's decision to pull the leases, asserting his official notification of the pulled leases happened when the BLM's deputy director in Utah informed energy companies on Feb. 12, 2009.
Benson and two of the three justices at the 10th Circuit disagreed, saying the clock started to tick six days earlier when Salazar penned an internal memo that was distributed.
Environmental groups that had applauded Salazar's actions were equally pleased with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to not hear the case.
“This is a victory for Utah’s wild lands,” said Robin Cooley, Earthjustice attorney for the conservation groups who intervened in the case to defend the decision. “As Secretary Salazar recognized, the prior administration was in a ‘headlong rush’ to issue oil and gas leases without concern for the spectacular scenery, pristine air, and outstanding recreational opportunities of these lands.”
David Nimkin, southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the legal battles underscore the need for greater public input and planning before development leases are offered at auction.
“The court’s decision validates the significance of public input and planning before lease permits are offered for sale,” Nimkin said. “In particular, planning and providing for the protection of our national parks should be a priority.”