Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is canceling oil and gas leases on 77 parcels of federal land in Utah, according to sources familiar with the decision, ending a fierce battle over whether to allow energy exploration in the environmentally sensitive area.
The Bush administration conducted the lease sale in December, but environmental groups went to court to block the winning bids encompassing roughly 110,000 acres near pristine areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument.
Just before Bush left office last month, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued a restraining order on the lease sales, postponing the final transactions until he could hear arguments on the merits of the case.
An Interior spokesman declined to comment on the matter, but several sources familiar with the decision said Salazar planned to announce it today, adding that he can reject the winning bids without a penalty because the transactions had not become final and the department has the discretion to accept or reject lease bids that prevail at a public auction.
Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who helped challenge the lease sales in federal court, said the decision would send an important signal about the new administration's approach to energy and environmental issues.
"What's significant here is you really do have Salazar taking a very critical first step toward restoring some sort of balance to the management of public lands," Buccino said. "We can have energy security without sacrificing the West's wild places."
The federal government's Dec. 19 Utah lease sale sparked a second legal controversy as well: In an attempt to derail the auction, University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher bid $1.8 million and won 13 of the leases even though he never intended to pay for them.
Federal agents escorted DeChristopher out of the room in the midst of the auction, and the U.S. attorney Brett L. Tolman is considering whether to press charges in the case.