WASHINGTON — An investigative report by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's own Office of Inspector General disputes his claims that oil and gas parcels offered for lease at a controversial December 2008 auction in Salt Lake City were "rushed."
Salazar used that reason to justify pulling 77 parcels that had been bid on in the Bureau of Land Management auction, asserting that they were offered as a result of a rushed midnight decision by the Bush administration.
The report released Monday said an investigation "found no evidence to support the allegation that undue pressure was exerted on BLM personnel" to complete the resource management plans so the parcels could be offered prior to a change in the White House administration.
It did note, however, that the BLM contributed to the "perception" that the lease-sale was rushed because the agency failed to notify the National Park Service in advance, as is standard, and refused to defer parcels on which the service sought additional reviews for their eligibility.
Arguing that too many of the parcels were located on the doorsteps of national treasures such as Arches National Park, Salazar rescinded the leases, leading to an uproar in Utah by county officials and state policymakers, who said the move cost millions in lost revenue and usurped a lengthy review process.
The controversial auction and subsequent pulling of the leases led Salazar to send an on-the-ground review team to Utah to personally inspect the parcels and determine if they were suitable to be auctioned.
Salazar's team later determined that 17 of the parcels could be reoffered at auction, eight were inappropriate and the remaining parcels merited additional review.
The report refutes allegations made by a regional NPS official who said he believed the state BLM director and two others in the agency exerted pressure to conduct the sale prior to the change in presidential administrations.
"We reviewed e-mails of (the trio) and identified approximately 200 e-mails pertaining" to the sale, the report states. Those e-mails lacked any evidence to support the park service official's claim and also confirmed the resource management plans had been an ongoing process for more than seven years, the report noted.
Additionally, even though a "confidential witness" asserted the same allegation, the report said the witness could not provide any evidence beyond an opinion, could not identify any employee who may have felt pressured and was unaware of any policies or regulations the BLM director may have violated.
Uintah, Duchesne and Carbon counties have since sued the Department of Interior, alleging Salazar lacked the authority to pull the leases.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said the report's conclusions vindicate the review process and reject Salazar's contention that it was flawed.
"The Interior Department has continued to talk about this flawed process and say they are going to issue new oil and gas guidelines because of this flawed process," McKee said. "We take great exception to that."
He said since those leases were rescinded, all three counties have taken a huge economic hit.
"The companies said it was the last straw for them," McKee said, adding that his county lost 3,000 jobs in 2009, while Duchesne lost about 1,000 jobs that same year.
"Since those leases were canceled, there have been relatively few oil and gas leases that have been permitted in Utah," he said.
Although McKee said he felt the investigative report could bolster the counties' legal argument in federal court over the contentious leases, it is unclear what the report's impacts will be.
The report, which was given to BLM's national director Bob Abbey, was prefaced with a memo that said the matter was being referred to him for review and action as "deemed appropriate."
The same auction that offered the leases that were subsequently pulled was marred by protests that included environmental activist Timothy DeChristopher, who bid on and won $1.7 million worth of parcels. An unemployed student, DeChristopher admitted to BLM officials that he bid on the protests out of principle and did not have the ability to pay for them.
He has since been charged in federal court, and his actions, coupled with the prosecution, have elicited national attention.
The Office of the Inspector General noted in its report that it was the "public attention and scrutiny of these events," and the allegations of the "rushed sale," that prompted the investigation.
Earlier this month, McKee submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to get the report after he was told of its contents, arguing it should be made public.
"Had this report shown that there was undue pressure, as Salazar maintained, you can be sure this would have been front-page material. As it is, it has been suppressed and hidden and not available for the public to see," until Monday, he said.
Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, both R-Utah, also urged Salazar in a July 9 letter to make the report publicly available, citing the importance of oil and gas development on federal lands.
As of Monday afternoon, the report was available on Interior's Office of the Inspector General website: www.doioig.gov/.
This story was reported from Salt Lake City.