SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of Utah's congressmen are among lawmakers in Washington, D.C., calling out the U.S. Department of Interior for postponing oil and gas lease sales, including one in Utah, due to apparent pressure from environmental groups.
In a letter penned to Interior Assistant Secretary Janice Schneider on Wednesday, 15 members of Congress complained that the cancellations of the auctions involving parcels in Utah, Arkansas and Michigan raise troubling concerns.
"These postponements raise serious doubts about the BLM's ability to conduct its statutory mandate," the letter said, pointing out that federal law requires the agency to hold quarterly sales. Postponements led to Utah having just two of the sales and only three sales in all of the Eastern states, the letter said. Wyoming, it added, was the only state to hold the requisite quarterly lease sales over the last two years.
"These latest postponements are troubling; particularly since the total number of new leases issued each year has fallen by 57 percent since 2008," the letter states.
Utah signatories include Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources; Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah; and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The BLM Utah office planned an oil and gas lease sale on Nov. 17 of about 37,000 acres in the Price and Vernal areas, but it postponed the event after multiple environmental groups announced they planned to stage a protest with phony bidder paddles. At the time, BLM officials said there was not adequate room to accommodate public interest, but it emphasized the event would be rescheduled. It has now been set for February.
Noting that there are no statutory requirements for the BLM to allow the public or observers to attend auctions, the congressmen are asking the agency to utilize the online bidding process to avoid disruptions. They also want to the BLM to aggressively punish people who disrupt or interfere with auctions, as provided under federal law, and reiterate its intent to hold quarterly auctions as mandated. They want a written response from Schneider by Jan. 5.
In response to the letter, BLM national spokesman Jeff Krauss said it has not been an inactive year in the area of oil and gas leasing.
"The BLM has held 22 lease sales this year. The BLM has offered 1,022 parcels covering 2.26 million acres. Those sales generated more than $159 million in bonus bids and rental fees for the U.S. Treasury, and the states and counties where the leases are located. These sales are by typically by live auction, and are open to the public."
Tim Ream heads up the climate and energy campaign for WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups involved in BLM protests around the country.
He said the congressmen's letter lacks any credibility because every signatory denies man-caused climate change is happening.
"They have zero credibility when it comes to fossil fuels," he said, adding the groups had no plans to disrupt the Salt Lake City auction.
Rather, he said he believes the Obama administration is pulling back on holding the auctions because of its untenable position of promoting itself as a climate change champion while at the same time pushing the development of fossil fuels on public lands.
"Frankly, it looks hypocritical on one hand to say you are showing climate leadership and on the other hand you are selling off public lands for oil, gas and coal," Ream said.
Vaughn Lovejoy, organizer of the newly formed Elders Rising, said he found it "heartbreaking" that politicians are more concerned about fossil fuel development than the future of their grandchildren.
Elders Rising, which represents the views of a group of grandparents, formed in Salt Lake City and has participated in protests in multiple Western states, including Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.