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Appeals court affirms freeze on Utah gas leases

Associated Press Modified: September 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm •  Published: September 5, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A group of land agents and energy companies cannot sue the federal government for rescinding drilling leases sold by the Bush administration around national parks in Utah because they missed a 90-day deadline to file the lawsuit, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The decision of the Denver-based U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals appeared to end years of political and legal discord after the Obama administration upended an oil-and-gas auction held in the final months of President George W. Bush's administration. Weeks after President Barack Obama took office, his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rescinded 77 lease parcels for oil and gas drilling, denying them to winning bidders.

Environmental groups said the auction would have allowed drilling to encroach on wild areas of Utah and despoil views from national parks. Oil industry executives insisted at least some of the parcels were far out of sight of any national park and had been open for leasing for years.

It was the same December 2008 auction in Salt Lake City where a Utah environmental activist jumped into the bidding to protest the sales and safeguard parcels around national parks. Tim DeChristopher — considered a folk hero in the environmental community — is serving two years in federal prison for disrupting the bidding.

DeChristopher ended up winning 14 drilling parcels for nearly $1.8 million, but he couldn't pay for them.

"This is really about the fact that the (Bush administration) offered leases in sensitive places such as the doorstep to Arches and Canyonlands national parks," said David Garbett, a staff lawyer for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The wilderness group and others went to court before the auction was held. They reached an agreement with federal lawyers to allow the auction to go ahead, but with the understanding a federal judge could issue a restraining order on parcels that were sold. That judge granted the request. Salazar followed up by freezing the leases indefinitely.

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