DENVER — A judge late Saturday halted the Bush administration's efforts to open 110,000 acres of federal land in Utah to oil and gas exploration, ruling that the danger of damaging the pristine land required further study before leases were awarded.
The leases to the parcels had been auctioned off Dec. 19 in a move that environmental groups said was a last-minute gift to the energy industry before President Bush left office.
A coalition of seven groups sued for a temporary restraining order, and the ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina means the checks written by energy companies for the land cannot be cashed.
Urbina's order postpones any sale until after he can hear arguments on the merits of the case, a delay that will potentially place the fate of the land into the hands of the Obama administration. Aides to President-elect Barack Obama have objected to the sale.
"We're thrilled with this decision," said Stephen Bloch of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. The Bureau of Land Management's "attempt to sell these leases just before the Bush administration left office has been showcased for what it really is -- a parting gift to the oil and gas industry."
The original package of 360,000 acres included land that abutted national parks. After the National Park Service objected, some of the leases were discarded, but environmentalists said the remaining parcels still included key parts of Utah's red-rock country.