WASHINGTON — The Interior Department on Wednesday put the brakes on a Bush administration plan to expand oil and gas drilling in Utah's wild red-rock country near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the leases of 77 oil and gas parcels, or 130,000 acres. The leases were also near Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon, an area with prehistoric rock art. Salazar said that the auction Dec. 19 took place without a proper environmental review and consultation with the National Park Service.
Salazar said the department would reconsider the leases and decide whether they were appropriate. It's possible that "a very large portion" of the land could be put up for lease, he said.
The cancellation of the leases was one of the first actions that the Obama administration has taken to protect environmentally sensitive public lands. Salazar called it "an important first step to making sure we have the right balance between development of our resources and protection of our environment."
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Actor Robert Redford said in a statement that Salazar's announcement was "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" and added: "American citizens once again have a say in the fate of their public lands, which in this case happen to be some of the last pristine places on Earth."
Jack Gerard, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, objected to the decision, saying that it ran counter to President Barack Obama's goal of reducing reliance on foreign oil.
"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," he said in a statement.
Environmental groups had sued to try to block the sale, and U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a temporary restraining order in January that prevented the Bureau of Land Management from going ahead with the leases.
Salazar's decision requires the BLM to return about $6 million to the companies that bid on the leases.
The decision didn't affect the leases on nearly 20,000 other acres of public land in Utah that were auctioned Dec. 19.
Salazar said at a news conference Wednesday announcing the decision that he was reviewing about a dozen other decisions that he said were rushed through in the last days of the Bush administration, but he declined to give any hints about what he'd do.
One of them was a go-ahead for oil and gas development off the coasts.
"It's very much on the table," the interior secretary said. Obama has said that the Outer Continental Shelf might contain appropriate places to explore and develop, Salazar said. "We simply are in the process of reviewing what kind of changes ought to be made," he said.
Republicans in the House of Representatives announced Wednesday that dozens of their members, led by Reps. Kevin Brady of Texas and John Shimkus of Illinois, had written to Obama urging him to go ahead with the offshore leasing. They argued that jobs and energy security were at stake.
"We depend on the resources we extract from our land for a great part of our energy portfolio," Salazar said.
The U.S. gets about one-third of its oil and gas and 50 percent of its coal from federal lands, Salazar said, and he predicted that the country would continue to use oil, gas and coal "as we open up the new energy frontier we're creating." He's said in the past that carbon-based fuels are needed until alternative fuels are more widely available.
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