In yet another percolating battle between state and federal agencies over control of public lands, a top official in Gov. Gary Herbert's administration said Wednesday that litigation may be the only option to challenge recent reforms to the nation's oil and gas leasing program.
A conference call among Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's office and state environmental, land and energy advisers to the governor was held Wednesday morning on the heels of last week's announcement that Salazar had finalized sweeping changes to the program.
Public lands director John Harja said the conference call made clear the reforms have been implemented, with no backward glances being considered by Salazar's office.
"They are now operational," Harja told lawmakers on the natural resources and environment interim committee. Most disconcerting, he said, is the added layer of review with Salazar's creation of "master leasing plans" for parcels under consideration for resource development.
"This looks like it has every possibility of becoming a cog in the wheel and not producing any useful results," he said, adding that litigation may be an avenue the state would want to consider.
First announced in January and finalized this month, Salazar's changes to the oil and gas leasing program grew out of the controversial December 2008 auction in Salt Lake City. Protested at the outset by environmentalists, the auction of the parcels gained national attention after University of Utah student Tim DeChristopher deliberately bid on parcels he didn't intend to pay for in effort to monkey-wrench the process.
Salazar subsequently withdrew 77 of the parcels, and a later review concluded that many of them were located too close to pristine landscapes near national parks.
The reforms include a review of six resource management plans signed off on by the Bureau of Land Management after years of analysis. Critics contend unraveling of the plans will just further chase away oil and gas exploration from areas like Uintah County. Officials from that county participated in the conference call.
The state Bureau of Land Management has until Aug. 16 to come up with Utah's specific plan on how it is going to carry out the reforms.
In other land disputes dominating Utah's time and attention, Herbert's environmental adviser, Ted Wilson, said the state is waiting to hear back from Salazar's office on a proposal to settle claims on certain so-called RS 2477 roads.
The disputed roads involve rights-of-way granted by the federal government to state and counties in 1866. Pushed through to encourage the development of a system of highways, RS 2477 was later repealed — subject to "existing rights."
That vague interpretation has launched expensive and protracted legal battles that Wilson said he hopes can be averted administratively.