In a conference call with reporters and bloggers just completed, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a most welcome announcement.
WASHINGTON (February 4, 2009) – More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness will be protected from oil and gas drilling after the Department of Interior announced today that it will cancel 77 leases issued under the Bush administration. This is among the first actions taken by the Obama administration to protect America’s wild lands. Since December, a coalition of environmental groups – led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society – have been working to protect these public lands. In December, the coalition filed suit to stop the leasing, and, in January, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases.
"I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands," said Robert Redford, an NRDC trustee. "American citizens once again have a say in the fate of their public lands, which in this case happen to be some of the last pristine places on earth."
Unclear at the moment is where that leaves University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher, one of the most sophisticated, effective, and constructive monkey-wrenchers ever. He won 13 leases in his partially successful attempt to derail the auction. With those leases now canceled, his legal jeopardy might be dissolved. Salazar refused to comment on the case in this call, merely stating that it has been referred to the DOJ.
Salazar doesn't rule out the possibility that some of the parcels on which leases were canceled today won't eventually be put back out for sale once a valid process for determining their suitability for drilling is completed. But the most sensitive areas will remain protected.
There were a handful of questions on all the other messes Salazar inherited, from snowmobiles in Yellowstone to massive oil shale lease sales, but Salazar remained tight-lipped on the other decisions and midnight regulations that they are currently reconsidering.
This was a very good start, but there's yeoman's work ahead of Salazar and his department, including reestablishing and enforcing ethics in the Department. While it didn't receive the degree of attention that the Department of Justice did for being politicized, the shenanigans there go far beyond the drugs and sex scandals that made headlines. Rooting out the industry shills in Interior is going to be as big a job as rooting out Regent University law school grads.