The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to hear a case that aimed to reinstate the 2008-era leases, giving a lower court panel the final say on the matter.
“The Supreme Court’s decision means it’s the end of the line for this lawsuit,” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) attorney Steve Bloch said Oct. 15. “We’re grateful for that decision.”
Needless to say, the other side at the center of the five-year legal dispute had a very different reaction to the court’s brief announcement.
“We were disappointed in the fact that the court chose not to hear the case,” Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said Oct. 14.
Uintah County and other petitioners hoped the court’s nine justices would reverse a September 2012 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to withdraw the leases.
The leases in question — along with six others that Salazar ultimately reinstated — came up for lease during the closing weeks of former President George W. Bush’s administration.
Some of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) leases were located on parcels near the boundaries of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
The BLM ultimately backed away from leasing additional parcels closest to Arches, while SUWA and its allies won a December 2008 court order that prevented the agency from issuing the remainder of the leases.
Weeks later, President Barack Obama took office, and in February 2009, his new interior secretary directed the BLM’s deputy state director to yank the leases.
At the time, Salazar accused the Bush administration of short-circuiting environmental reviews by rushing through the oil and gas leasing process.
When officials in Uintah, Carbon and Duchesne counties found out about his decision, they teamed up with a group of energy developers to challenge it.
U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson went on to rule that Salazar lacked the authority to act as he did. At the same time, however, the judge found that the petitioners missed the deadline to file their legal challenge.
In its 2-1 ruling, the 10th Circuit Court narrowly agreed with the second part of Benson’s decision.
McKee, however, remained optimistic that the dissenting opinion would be strong enough to catch the Supreme Court’s eye. But he conceded this week that the petitioners are now out of legal options.
“It doesn’t give us much recourse because the Supreme Court declined to hear it,” he said Oct. 14.
Still, McKee sees one upside to Judge Benson’s ruling: He believes it should prevent future Interior Department leaders from intervening in the oil and gas leasing process.
“We won the battle and lost the fight on the leases,” he said. In the Uintah Basin, at least, that loss could be a costly one.
According to McKee, energy companies paid $48.6 million for the right to drill on the six leases that Salazar eventually reinstated. Based on those figures, the canceled leases had the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now that they’re gone, McKee doesn’t believe there will be many near-term opportunities to make up for the loss.
“This administration has not allowed very many new leases to be drilled,” he said.
Ultimately, McKee said he considers the outcome of the dispute to be shameful.
It’s one thing, he said, if the agency had approved leases in areas that had been deemed unsuitable for energy development. “But these were all in areas that were found to be appropriate,” he said, noting that the BLM spent seven and a half years working through its resource management and planning process.
For the most part, McKee said, the disputed parcels were nowhere near national park or national monument boundaries.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance would beg to differ with him, though. According to Bloch, Hatch Point was one of many spectacular Moab-area landscapes at risk. The wilderness-quality area lies within the viewshed of Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky unit.
“It’s one of the landmarks that stands out, and that’s now one of the places that’s off the chopping block,” he said.
The Supreme Court also granted a reprieve to Monitor and Merrimac buttes.
“These are iconic local landmarks that (residents) and tourists like to visit,” he said.
While McKee remains deeply critical of the current administration’s actions, SUWA holds Obama’s predecessor responsible for making the leases possible in the first place.
As Bloch sees it, the parcels only became available as a result of the Bush administration’s land management plans.
“The BLM here held a Christmas ‘we’re going out of business’ sale,” he said.