Ken Salazar: Did he blow the call on Utah energy leases?

Update, 4:30 pm: As Mike McKee predicts below, the Inspector General's report on the lease sales is now posted on the Department of the Interior's website. For the report summary, go here.

Utah County Commissioner Mike McKee wants Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to release an internal report that concludes there was nothing improper about dozens of oil and gas leases in eastern Utah.

Salazar canceled those leases in the early weeks of the Obama administration.

McKee says that cancellation of the leases, issued in the final weeks of the Bush administration, cost thousands of jobs in his county. The county has sued the DOI over the action, and McKee claims to have recently learned that an investigation by Interior's Inspector General "exonerates" the leases.

The Bureau of Land Management's last-minute auction of the 77 leases, many located close to wilderness areas and national parks in eastern Utah, stirred outrage among environmental groups. On January 17, 2009, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order suspending the leases. Salazar canceled them three weeks later, criticizing the BLM for failing to consult adequately with park officials.

Fallout over the leases has continued to dog Salazar's efforts to transform Interior and implement more stringent leasing rules in the new administration's push toward alternative energy development. Conservative anger over the cancellations stalled for weeks the confirmation of Salazar's chief deputy, David Hayes. After the impasse was finally broken, Hayes led a review of the situation that resulted in some leases being offered again while most were "deferred" for further evaluation.

As litigation over the decision lurches toward trial, McKee maintains that the IG's own probe found no evidence that Bush officials exerted political pressure on the BLM to issue the leases and that the process involved no violation of internal rules or policies. "If the whole process was flawed, why didn't they withdraw all the leases?" McKee asks. "The process was not flawed."

But to date, the department hasn't made the report public. While Interior has offered little or no comment on McKee's allegations, a spokeswoman did tell Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel that the report "has no bearing" on Salazar's decision "to withdraw the leases to conduct further reviews."

Maybe, McKee suggests, it should have. He expects that the department will soon be compelled to release the document on its website. "I suspect that there's going to be an effort to minimize this report, but the report will speak for itself," he says.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast