Reflecting on the 77 leases ruling

On Wednesday the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a favorable ruling in Impact Energy v. Salazar.  We blogged a short “breaking news” blurb that day.  It is worth further reflection since it encapsulates some of the most important issues on the public lands front over the last few years.

Impact Energy v. Salazar was a lawsuit—brought by three oil and gas companies and three Utah counties—challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s February 2009 decision to withdraw the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) offer to lease the infamous 77 oil and gas lease parcels on public lands.

However, Secretary Salazar was not acting in a vacuum.  SUWA’s members and others raised an intense outcry regarding these leases in December of 2008.  This produced significant media coverage and scrutiny of the lease sale.  The following month, in January 2009, SUWA won a temporary restraining order in federal court preventing the BLM from issuing the 77 leases in the first place. Within in a few weeks, the newly appointed Sec. Salazar realized the mistake the agency had made and scrapped the leases.

Upset at this outcome, the companies and counties filed a lawsuit challenging the Secretary’s decision.  Earthjustice intervened in this litigation on behalf of SUWA and other environmental organizations.  The Utah District Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the companies and counties had filed too late in the day.  They then appealed to the Tenth Circuit but Wednesday’s ruling confirmed the original outcome and dismissed their claims based on their late filing.

This is good news in the short run for the lands threatened by the 77 leases.  The long-run outcome for these lands, however, remains uncertain.

These 77 leases included some of Utah’s most spectacular public lands (see photos and maps).  The BLM proposed leasing parcels at the doorstep of Arches and Canyonlands national parks, at the head of Desolation Canyon, in the depths of the White River’s amazing canyon, in Labyrinth Canyon, and even immediately adjacent to Dinosaur National Monument.  This fire sale in the waning days of the last president was made possible by one of the Bush Administration’s most lasting and pernicious legacies: six resource management plans (RMPs) completed in the fall of 2008.

Do not be fooled by the boring sounding title, resource management plans are critical documents that guide the BLM’s day-to-day management of public lands.  They act like city zoning plans, determining where and when certain activities can take place.  SUWA constantly is fighting poor choices made by the BLM to allow oil and gas development on sensitive lands, off-road vehicle travel in inappropriate places, and so on.  These mistakes often have their genesis in the fact that a given RMP may make 90% of an entire field office available to oil and gas development or the fact that the six plans combined designate over 20,000 miles of dirt routes for vehicle travel.

It is these RMPs that the BLM relied on to determine that it would offer the 77 leases in the first place.  Although the 77 leases may be dead, those RMPs are not.  Hence, these same remarkable public lands remain available for the chopping block.  The whims of the current administration and random bureaucrats are all that prevent them from being placed in the crosshairs again shortly.

SUWA is seeking to change those RMPs and is currently engaged in litigation to do just that.  We hope that our efforts will ultimately pay off in a more thoughtful approach to public lands management that remove us from this gerbil wheel of ill-advised leasing decisions.