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A national battle over oil and gas leasing in Utah took a couple of fresh twists today, turning it into a cliffhanger as the Obama administration moves into power.
Tomorrow the Bureau of Land Management is going ahead with plans to lease tens of thousands of acres in what critics call a last-minute giveaway by the Bush administration.
Environmentalists hope to delay the oil and gas leases until after the inauguration. Today's developments bring them closer to that goal, but both sides are still on the field fighting for position.
The lease sale in Utah has drawn national attention because some of the land is just outside the boundaries of national parks and national monuments.
Critics say the Bush administration is doing one last favor for the oil and gas industry before leaving office. Top Obama officials have said he might try to reverse the decision once he takes office, but many legal scholars believe he wouldn't have the power to do it because a lease is protected by private property rights.
Environmental groups filed a lawsuit hoping to stop tomorrow's auction. A Washington judge today agreed to hold a hearing, presumably sometime next month.
Meanwhile the BLM agreed to an unusual procedure at tomorrow's auction. Oil and gas companies with winning bids won't actually be given leases. Their money will be placed in escrow for 30 days to give the judge time to hold the hearing before leases become final.
Thirty days, that puts it just a couple of days before President-elect Obama's inauguration.
Environmentalists would like to delay it a little longer.
Meanwhile, critics plan a protest tomorrow morning at Gateway, outside the BLM office where the auction takes place.