WASHINGTON — The Utah Attorney General's Office is celebrating what it says is a big win for the state after being granted a change of venue in a lawsuit over the controversial issuance of 77 oil and gas leases fought by environmentalists.
The decision by D.C. District Judge Ricardo Urbina on Wednesday means legal challenges brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance will be heard in Utah and not back east where the lawsuit was first filed in 2010.
"This ruling will set an important legal precedent that cases involving Utah lands should not be heard in Washington, D.C.," Chief Deputy Utah Attorney General John Swallow said.
Swallow said victory is not only important in this legal dispute, but sets a precedent other judges can turn to in the future when it comes to litigation that involves land in Utah.
"When you are talking about specific land issues, you really ought to have a local judge on the ground here in Utah decide these issues," he said. "That is what we felt strongly about."
The state was backed by Carbon County, the Utah Schools and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, and seven impacted oil and gas companies that successfully argued that the land management plans supporting oil and gas development were "drafted, developed and finalized in Bureau of Land Management field offices in Utah."
Those leases to Utah federal lands were offered up for potential oil and gas development at a BLM auction in downtown Salt Lake City in December of 2008 — the same auction derailed by environmental activist Timothy DeChristopher.
The then-economics major at the University of Utah was subsequently convicted in federal court of two felonies for fraudulently bidding on parcels to drive up the prices. DeChristopher registered as a bidder and won the parcels in a climate change protest over what he said were flawed energy development policies carried out by the Bush administration.
In 2009, after President Barack Obama took office, newly appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pulled the 77 leases even as they were being challenged in court. Although he stressed his actions were independent of DeChristopher botching the auction, Salazar said the controversial leases merited further review because of allegations that they included land too close to national parks and other pristine areas. Some of those leases have since been reissued, others remain under consideration and a number of them were withheld because of their proximity to national parks or wilderness.
In the decision to move the lawsuit to Utah, the judge rejected arguments by SUWA that the land in question or the legal issues raised in the controversy constituted a matter of national importance that should be heard in Washington, D.C. courts.
"While there can be no debate about the objective natural beauty of these locations, this fact alone does not suffice to create a national interest that outweighs Utah's strong local interest in having local controversies decided within its borders," the court said.
The court went on to back Utah's claims that the case lacked any "meaningful" ties to Washington, noting that any oversight by the BLM in Washington, D.C. was so limited that a connection was not adequately demonstrated.
In contrast, Utah's own interests at stake — from being the setting where the plans were crafted to the ultimate judicial outcome — are heavily entwined in the lawsuit and thus changing venue is appropriate, the court noted.
"The fact that this controversy will affect the use of discrete parcels of land (advises) towards transfer to the judicial district where that land is located," Urbina wrote.