In its first action to overturn Bush administration policies on energy, the Obama administration on Wednesday said it will cancel oil drilling leases on more than 130,000 acres near two national parks and other protected areas in Utah.
"In the last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases near some of our nation's most precious landscapes in Utah," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters. "“We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources."
"We will take time and a fresh look at these 77 parcels to see if they are appropriate for oil and gas development," he said, adding that the Bureau of Land Management will return the $6 million in bids from an auction last December.
The 77 leases were for areas near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon, which is sometimes called the world's longest art gallery for its collection of ancient rock-art panels.
Critics, backers weigh in
Republicans and the oil industry have argued that the United States should open more domestic areas if it wants to create jobs and reduce its reliance on foreign oil.
“This action will come as a disappointment to communities that were counting on these energy leases to generate high-wage jobs in these difficult economic times," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said in a statement.
"We hope today's decision does not signal the administration is returning to the failed policies of the past, leaving much of America's vast energy resources locked up while the nation's demand for energy continues to grow," added Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
Environmental groups lauded the action, saying drilling would have threatened Utah's wild lands and spoil views from some of the state's spectacular national parks.
"I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands," actor and activist Robert Redford, a trustee with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement issued by groups that opposed the leases.
Redford owns a home in Utah and hosts the annual Sundance Film Festival there.
The alliance of groups in December filed a lawsuit to try to stop the leasing, in part citing concerns it would pollute the air in the protected areas.
Judge had blocked leases
In January, a judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing the BLM, which is part of Interior, from moving forward with the leases.
"At best these lands will produce only 1.5 hours of the oil we use in a whole year," Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney who represented the conservation groups in court, said in Wednesday's statement. "The oil industry will profit, not America."
Conservation groups promised to press ahead with the lawsuit to challenge long-term management plans that made the sale of the parcels possible in the first place. The plans, governing 7 millions acres of public land in Utah, were approved by the BLM last year.
The Interior Department said it was able to scrap the leases because the BLM had not yet formally accepted them.
The National Park Service protested the Dec. 19 auction weeks before it was held, and the BLM removed some parcels from the auction list in response.
At first, the BLM was going to auction a parcel so close to Delicate Arch, the signature landmark at Arches park near Moab, drills might have been visible through the center of the 33-foot-wide span. That parcel was 1.3 miles away. It was taken off the auction list under Park Service protest, but the BLM took bids on other drilling parcels within view of Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur parks.
Salazar said he was allowing the lease of 39 other parcels auctioned off in December that were not challenged in the lawsuit.
The BLM is scheduled to hold its next auction in Utah on March 24. It wasn't known Wednesday what lands might go up for sale next.
A monkey wrench
The battle between the Bush administration and activists took an unusual turn in December when an activist won $1.7 million in leases but then didn't have the money for a down payment on them.
The activist, Tim DeChristopher, said in early January that he had raised $45,000 from supporters and that if he didn't have to use the money he would contact donors to determine what to do with the cash.
The decision does not mean DeChristopher is off the hook, U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman told The Associated Press. Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old economics major at the University of Utah, won $1.7 million in leases even though he had no intention or means to pay.
Tolman said some people want DeChristopher prosecuted for running up lease prices and safeguarding several parcels between Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
To many environmentalists, however, DeChristopher is a hero. He said Wednesday he was willing to go to federal prison if he is charged for his act of monkey-wrenching. "This is how the environmental movement should be working," he said.
More on the Utah drilling controversy
The Associated Press contributed to this report.