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Salazar finalizing oil and gas development reforms

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WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is finalizing reforms announced in January to the nation's oil and gas leasing program, a move applauded by environmentalists and lamented by oil producers.

In his announcement Monday, Salazar said the reforms will provide additional environmental protections for public lands and create an "orderly" approach to energy development.

"These reforms take a fresh look — from inside the federal government and from outside — at how we can better manage Americans' energy resources," said Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey.

"They will improve protections for land, water and wildlife, and reduce potential conflicts that can lead to costly and time-consuming protests and litigation of leases."

Many of the reforms spring from the recommendations of a review team that traveled to Utah to analyze a controversial oil and gas lease/sale that happened in December 2008.

The sale was marred by protests and ended with environmental activist Tim DeChristopher in handcuffs.

DeChristopher, a University of Utah student, bid on multiple parcels he said he had no intention of paying for. He subsequently was charged with two felonies and is being prosecuted in federal court.

Months later, Salazar withdrew 77 of the parcels from consideration pending the results of the review.

Although some of the parcels were ultimately put up for auction, Salazar pointed to the December event as example of a process that was inherently flawed.

On Monday, Salazar said his reforms will "engage" the public in the development of master leasing plans where new oil and gas development is anticipated and boost coordination within the BLM. In some circumstances, on-site visits will be made to parcels of land prior to them being offered at auction. Additional screening also will be required before land is offered up through a "categorical exclusion" in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Environmental groups lauded Salazar for the reforms, saying they have been badly needed for years.

"With these changes, Secretary Salazar is taking long overdue steps to correct the excesses of the Bush administration," said Steve Bloch, attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

"No place were these excesses felt more acutely than in Utah where America's red rock wilderness lands were ground zero for Bush administration policies."

The Wilderness Society's president, William H. Meadows, said the reforms represent a "new and better chapter" in how lands are managed.

In contrast, oil and gas producers said the reforms being instituted lack any input from thousands of families whose livelihoods are tied to energy development.

"These working families and their small towns and communities are already suffering from DOI's slowdown of energy development," said Kathleen Sgamma, Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States director of governmental affairs.

"The uncertainty that will result from these policy changes will further unemployment and decrease revenue that small towns and rural counties throughout the West depend on to fund education and public safety."

Sgamma added that the policies will only serve to create an "endless cycle" of analysis that will slow energy development without affording protections to the environment.

"Federal land managers will be perpetually second-guessing their land-use decisions, taking time away from on-the-ground protection and back to paperwork."

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com