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Utah BLM director defends oil, gas lease sale

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Selma Sierra

Selma Sierra


A day before a controversial oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City, Utah Bureau of Land Management director Selma Sierra issued a news release to explain her agency's role in what she described as advancing the country's energy goals and economic security.

Even so, the head of one Utah-based oil and gas development company said Thursday that the sale is now hardly worth attending because so many parcels have been pulled from the table. Pioneer Oil and Gas president Don Colton said he wants more "sanity" brought to the give and take leading up to a lease sale.

Colton said that at least seven companies, including his, had nominated parcels in the central Utah area, where two relatively recent oil discoveries have shown there may be 200 million barrels of crude waiting for the take. According to Colton's calculations, most of those ripe parcels for now are off limits to drilling.

"We'll bid on others in the Price region," Colton said. His company, which prospects for oil and sells interests to large companies, tallied about $10 million annually in sales over the past two years.

Colton wants clearer "ground rules" for the process prior to a lease sale. He also wants a means for getting all of the interested parties together and determining which areas of Utah should be closed to drilling. He said he wouldn't have a problem with creating a buffer zone around national parks.

Many of the parcels pulled from Friday's sale don't appear to be in or even near so-called scenic areas, he said, and the BLM has "tight" rules about reclaiming areas where oil and gas drilling takes place.

"When you go back out there, you never know we were there," Colton said. That includes, he said, wiping away temporary roads. "When you're done, you've reclaimed everything."

His characterization contrasted sharply with that of actor Robert Redford, who on Wednesday characterized the lease sale as "morally criminal" and said that once the parcels the BLM is supposed to be protecting are taken, they will be lost forever to development. Redford's comments came as he endorsed a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by several environmental groups to challenge the sale.

The BLM had its own take Thursday on the industry and Friday's sale.

"While we envision a future of energy independence sustained by alternative and renewable sources of energy, we also know that oil and natural gas are the essential bridge to that future energy independence," Sierra said.

Sierra said facts about BLM's quarterly oil and gas lease sale have been mischaracterized, "sowing confusion and misunderstanding."

Her missive Thursday came after weeks of criticism from environmental and conservation watchdogs and the National Park Service, all of whom have expressed grave concerns over how close some of the lease parcels are to two national parks, a national monument and other culturally and environmentally sensitive areas in Utah. One of BLM's most vocal critics has been Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Stephen Bloch.

"Selling these leases will have no impact whatsoever on our national security and likewise no effect on the 'price at the pump' or the price that Utahns or Americans pay to heat their homes," Bloch said Thursday in an e-mail to the Deseret News.

Sierra stressed that the law prohibits the BLM from leasing areas that are federally protected as wilderness or wilderness study areas. She said the law also requires the BLM to hold quarterly lease sales, which don't automatically allow for exploration and development of oil and gas resources. Public input and an environmental analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act must take place before a lease is developed.

Sierra said developed leases translate into jobs, infrastructure and benefits to local economies.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com