WASHINGTON AND DENVER — Under pressure from Republican lawmakers, the administration is considering whether to reinstate more than a third of the 77 oil- and gas-drilling leases near national parks in the Mountain West that it blocked shortly after President Obama took office.
In a report released Thursday, the Interior Department criticized the process under which those leases were auctioned in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. But the report also opened the door for the department to reinstate or re-auction 30 leases on parcels that lie in existing oil and gas development areas or are "not near particularly sensitive landscapes."
It instructed the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a more thorough review of those parcels to see if leasing them would be appropriate. "The BLM team should do its work expeditiously," the report concluded. "Companies who successfully bid on specific parcels should receive timely feedback on whether they will be able to develop those parcels."
The leases in question include tracts near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah.
The auction was held in December, about a month before Obama took office. Conservation groups challenged the lease sales in court, and incoming Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered the 77 most controversial ones vacated while a special review was conducted.
Western Republicans in the Senate, led by Robert F. Bennett of Utah, retaliated by stalling the confirmation of David Hayes, Salazar's choice to be his chief deputy. The Republicans relented after Hayes promised to conduct an expedited review of the leases.
The report released Thursday said that the auction "deviated in important respects from the normal leasing process." For example, it said, the BLM had failed to notify the National Park Service about tracts that were a late addition to the sale, and the bureau refused to adequately consider the air quality effects of the leases.
Environmentalists welcomed the report and expressed confidence it would not lead to any leases being reissued.
"We think that when they take a closer look at a lot of these leases, they'll find that these are lands that shouldn't be leased and wouldn't have been leased under anyone other than the Bush administration," said Jim Angell, managing attorney of the Denver office of the environmental group Earthjustice.
Industry groups called the report a mixed bag.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of Mountain States said she was cheered that a third of the sales could go through but disappointed the government did not affirm all 77 leases.
The American Petroleum Institute said in a statement that "while we are pleased that the Interior Department has agreed to review whether to reinstate these leases, we are concerned that the report could be used to justify inaction on development of the energy resources that are found on federal public lands in the Mountain West."