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Federal team finding some energy leases in Utah OK

Federal team finding some energy leases in Utah OK

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- It's one of the more unusual factors federal officials are considering as they weigh energy leases sold in Utah by President George W. Bush's administration near wild areas or national parks.

Officials call it "drainage" -- when somebody else nearby already is sucking oil or natural gas from the ground, working from private or state-owned parcels and draining reserves from under interspersed federal parcels.

That could deny Uncle Sam his royalty, and it's an argument for the leasing of some of the public lands, which in December provoked an uproar from Utah to Washington, D.C. The checkerboard pattern of land ownership is common in the West.

The 12-member review team, appointed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, looked at 77 drilling leases sold in December by the Bush administration, which Salazar scrapped in February.

Salazar said drilling on many of the parcels could spoil Utah's wondrous landscapes. But he left open the possibility that some leases might prove suitable for development after a "fresh look."

Mark Stiles, the supervisor of Colorado's San Juan National Forest, said his review team -- government specialists in everything from air quality to geology -- spent nine days on the ground for up to 14 hours a day in temperatures that reached 107 degrees. The tour ended last Wednesday, and Stiles plans to file a report with Salazar by September.

Stiles said his team witnessed practically every argument for drilling -- or not drilling -- on public lands in Utah while motoring on rough roads and hiking into the Utah outback.

The team saw some drilling parcels that clearly would spoil views from redrock parks, while other parcels are hidden well enough in the folds of the landscape.

Some parcels are suitable for drilling because they are next to oil fields or existing leases, Stiles said; others are impractical because they are too remote or cover land best described as "almost cliff faces," he said.

"We were able to put an eye on every one of them," he said. Salazar's chief deputy, David Hayes, has said 30 of the 77 leases could prove suitable for sale again because they are next to existing or soon-to-be operating oil or gas fields. That's where "drainage" becomes a factor. Stiles declined to put a number on how many leases he thinks might be suitable for development.

National Park Service officials objected to drilling rigs visible by day and illuminated at night, ruining views of the night sky from Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.

Part of the solution could be restrictions on lights, noise or even prohibitions on occupying a parcel that would require oil companies to reach them from another location with underground directional drilling, Stiles said.

At the outset, the Service protested plans for the December auction, saying it wasn't given customary notice of the auction list in time to file objections. The Bureau of Land Management quickly pulled back several leases touching the borders of Arches -- one drilling parcel would have been visible through the hole of the park's signature Delicate Arch -- but other nearby drilling parcels brought protests.

Wilderness groups sued to block the award of the leases. Weeks later, Salazar scrapped them. That brought another lawsuit from winning bidders including Denver-based Questar Exploration & Production Co.

The Dec. 19 auction was troubled from the start when a college student grabbed a bidder's paddle to run up prices and take parcels between Arches and Canyonlands national parks for safekeeping. Tim DeChristopher, who acknowledged he didn't have $1.7 million to pay for his leases, has pleaded not guilty to felony counts of interfering with and making false representations at a government auction.

Utah's Republican politicians, meanwhile, condemned Salazar's decision to revoke the leases, with Sen. Bob Bennett delaying confirmation of Salazar's chief deputy for weeks. Once confirmed, Hayes headed to Utah for an initial reconnaissance, later filing a report criticizing the haste in awarding the drilling parcels close to redrock parks.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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