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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Sen. Bob Bennett, center, speaks at the state Capitol about oil-shale and tar-sands development.

VERNAL — Rural county commissioners and other officials met Tuesday in the Uintah Basin to berate the federal government over its proposal to shrink by 75 percent the amount of public lands available for oil shale and tar sands development.

Kathleen Clarke, who heads Gov. Gary Herbert's public lands policy office, said the meeting brought together county commissioners from Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — the tri-state region that is home to the Green River formation said to contain as much as 1.8 trillion barrels of oil — with as many as 800 billion barrels that are recoverable.

She said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recent shift in public policy on how much land would be leased is an economic game-changer that leaves local economies fraught with uncertainty.

"I have never seen such an aggressive effort by an administration to obliterate energy opportunity and energy development," said Clarke, who served as director of the Bureau of Land Management from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush.

Instead of abiding by a 2008 environmental impact study that set out what Clarke described as constrained parameters for oil shale and tar sands development in the region, the BLM proposed changing the rules earlier this year. That proposal came about as part of a settlement agreement that was reached to resolve a 2009 lawsuit filed against the agency by a coalition of environmental groups.

In February, the BLM said it wanted to slash the amount of land available for leasing from a total of about 2 million acres to 462,000 acres.

Mark Ward, senior policy analyst and attorney for the Utah Association of Counties, branded the proposal a "bald-faced attempt" to implement Secretarial Order No. 3310, commonly known as the "wild lands" order.

"Congress said, 'Don't do that,'" Ward said Tuesday.

The "wild lands" order — announced by Salazar a few days before Christmas in 2010 — would have given the BLM broad latitude to re-inventory the public lands within its purview for potential wilderness characteristics. A last-minute federal spending resolution passed by Congress in April 2011 ultimately defunded the effort. 

Any attempt to revive the "wild lands" order, regardless of how it's done, will not go unchallenged, Ward said.

"(The Utah Association of Counties) cannot stand by and watch this gross reduction of acreage without contemplating some serious legal action," he said. "The very rule of law that makes this country work is strained to the breaking point."

The deadline for public comments on the BLM's latest proposal is May 4, but officials in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are asking for an extension so they can submit more detailed information.

"We are not comfortable with their proposed alternative," Clarke said. "It dramatically reduces the opportunities available."

She said Tuesday's discussion was a strategy session to outline concerns and ponder a next move.

"They are very firm in their resolve to stop this withdrawal of lands," she said. "They are finding how to bring power to their words and what actions they can take."

As angry as rural county officials may be — the proposal was blasted just last week by Mesa County, Colo., commissioners — environmentalists are praising the move.

"They're asking for 2 million acres of land for something that hasn't been proven yet," said the Sierra Club's Tim Wagner, adding that the new BLM proposal represents a conservative and common sense approach.

"If they can't prove it on 500,000 acres, how can they prove it on 2 million acres?"

But Clarke rejected that statement and said it is foolish for the federal government to put oil shale and tar sands resources off limits.

"What is troublesome to me is that the technology is ready to go," she said. "It is not because of lack of technology. This is politically driven."

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