Every day, it seems, I turn around and some big Bush-era decision governing public land has been tweaked, reversed, or otherwise flambeed. Today (Feb. 4), President Obama's new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled 77 controversial oil and gas leases near national parks and on wilderness quality lands in Utah.
“In its last weeks in office, the Bush Administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes in Utah,” Salazar said in a statement. “We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources in places like Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon, for future generations."
Salazar's maneuver was made possible in part by the environmental groups WildEarth Guardians and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which successfully sued for a temporary restraining to delay finalization of the leases. If the leases, which were auctioned Dec. 19, had been finalized, the contracts to the land would have been binding, leaving the new administration with only the option of buying them back -- provided the companies were willing. The government will forgo the $6 million paid out for the leases, plus whatever mineral royalties the parcels would have generated over the course of gas production.
Some Republican lawmakers, as well as natural gas companies and trade associations, quickly protested, citing the economic crisis (which has become something of a refrain against regulations that limit gas development). "At the very time our nation is debating legislation to create jobs and shore up our economy, the Department of Interior is taking steps to kill jobs and economic development in my home state," Utah Congressman Rob Bishop said in a statement. "This sale would have expanded employment and stimulated the economy of Utah."
(And, as always, they pointed to the need to ween ourselves off foreign oil -- too bad we're talking about natural gas, which is already nearly all domestically supplied).
But right now, the economic argument doesn't really fly. Existing gas development is still buoying some state economies, but new development has slowed considerably. In Utah, for example, drilling activity has dropped more than 50 percent since August of 2008, according the the Department of Natural Resources. The drilling of new leases seems unlikely to happen fast or at a large scale, especially given the continued decline of natural gas prices and the lack of adequate pipeline capacity (which has also been impacted by the credit crisis). Check out our recent blog posts on the subject: here, here, and here.