A bid to sell off more than 100,000 acres of land near national parks in Utah for oil and gas drilling was halted by a federal judge at the weekend.
The ruling, in response to a lawsuit filed by several environmental groups, suspends the sale of 77 parcels of land at an auction held in December.
The auction was seen by activists as an attempt by the outgoing Bush administration to deliver a last-minute gift to its allies in the oil and gas industry.
The sale on December 19 in Salt Lake City drew attention after an activist managed to successfully bid at the auction for 12 parcels of land totalling 22,000 acres. Although the activist, Tim DeChristopher, had no money, he bid $1.79m. The government agency selling the land, the Bureau of Land Management, had threatened to sue him for bidding without cash in hand; DeChristopher said he had raised the necessary $45,000 from supporters to make the first down payment.
"This order stops the Bush bulldozers in their tracks," said Sandra Buccino, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defence Council, one of the groups to bring the suit. "This is a win for two reasons. It preserves the land in question and it forces the BLM to do a more thorough job in protecting nature ... As a result of the judge's decision this will be a mess left on Obama's doorstep."
The BLM announced the sale of 164,000 acres for oil and gas drilling on December 12. But Judge Ricardo Urbina agreed with the plaintiffs that the agency had not carried out sufficient study of the impact of drilling near the Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the Dinosaur National Monument in eastern Utah close to the border with Colorado.
In his order the judge recognised the importance of developing energy sources, but agreed with the plaintiffs that further study was needed to assess the potential impact on air quality and the possibility of permanent damage to public lands. The ruling instructs the agency to postpone issuing leases for the parcels sold last month until the judge can later rule on the merits of the case.
Stephen Bloch, conservation director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said: "We're thrilled with this decision. BLM's attempt to sell these leases just before the Bush administration left office has been showcased for what it really is - a parting gift to the oil and gas industry."