Bush administration officials pushed aside the National Park Service and sought to lease public lands for drilling on the borders of Utah's most famous redrock parks during their final days in power, a special report to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says.
Salazar was condemned by the oil industry for scrapping 77 of the leases weeks after taking office, but all of the drilling parcels had already been delayed by a federal lawsuit that still hasn't been resolved.
Salazar defended his decision in a telephone interview Thursday, saying that leasing parcels on or near borders of national parks is highly unusual.
"At the end of the day, the Bush administration attempted to get as much public land leased for oil and gas development as they possibly could," Salazar said. "That kind of rush to a result short-circuited processes that are in place to protect our most precious landscapes."
Salazar's actions provoked a political battle that held up the Senate's confirmation of his chief deputy, David Hayes, who found serious flaws in the awarding of oil and gas leases on a visit to Utah.
Hayes said the Bureau of Land Management — the agency responsible for leasing public lands for energy development — set out to lease drilling parcels on the borders of Arches National Park without notifying the Park Service, violating a long-standing pact.
The BLM also moved to lease other parcels close to Canyonlands National Park and Dinosaur National Monument, and to open drilling around artifact-rich Nine Mile Canyon and along the high cliffs of whitewater sections of the wild Green River.
Cordell Roy, the chief Park Service administrator in Utah, said the BLM didn't consult the agency on an initial auction list that included parcels near the parks and monument.
"I was shocked and disappointed. I was really surprised by that," Roy said Thursday.
On all previous lease sales, the BLM would notify the Park Service ahead of the public and would send computer mapping files for Park Service officials to review, Roy said. The notifications would come "like clockwork," he said.
BLM backs off
The BLM backed off under pressure from the Park Service and removed parcels from the December auction list. But Hayes' report found it still auctioned 47 lease parcels that were too close to Arches and Canyonlands parks or wild areas without regard for spoiling views or fouling the air with drilling emissions.
"Only when the light of public scrutiny was shed on the situation did they reconsider some of the most problematic leases," Salazar said.
Hayes said the remaining 30 leases that Salazar rescinded in February could go up for sale again because they are in or next to existing oil and gas fields, but only after each parcel is carefully studied.
"We're creating a SWAT team, basically, to look at parcels on an individual basis," Hayes said.
Salazar said he agreed with that recommendation.
"There are some parcels that appear to be appropriate for leasing, and some that are not appropriate," he said.