11th-Hour Ruling Blocks Utah Oil and Gas Leases By FELICITY BARRINGER New York Times A federal judge on Saturday blocked oil and natural gas exploration on tens of thousands of acres of federal land in Utah, saying in an 11th- hour decision that the Interior Department had not done sufficient environmental analysis, particularly of how air quality might be degraded. The decision by the judge, Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington, granted a temporary restraining order sought by seven environmental groups to prevent oil and gas companies from taking possession of leases they had purchased Dec. 19. The Bureau of Land Management could have cashed the checks from the winning bidders on Monday; at that point the leases would have become final. The number of tracts available for lease in Utah had been reduced by the bureau late last fall after the National Park Service objected to plans to lease hundreds of acres near Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. But the scaled-back proposal still included land within sight of the parks, as well as land in and around Nine Mile Canyon, an area with well-preserved pre-Columbian rock art. â€œBecause of the threat of irreparable harm to public land if the leases are issued,â€ Judge Urbina wrote, â€œthe balancing of equities also tips in favorâ€ of the environmental groups that brought the lawsuit. Heidi McIntosh, a lawyer with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of the groups that sued, said in an e-mail message, â€œThe judgeâ€™s order saves some of the most spectacular landscapes in the nation â€” lands within a stoneâ€™s throw of two national parks â€” from being turned into oil and gas fields.â€ Kathleen Sgamma, the government affairs director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said the decision was â€œa setback for energy security.â€ â€œWe feel adequate analysis and protections were in place,â€ Ms. Sgamma added. Bush oil shale plan for Utah, Colorado, Wyoming triggers lawsuits By JUDITH KOHLER Associated Press Writer DENVER -- Two lawsuits by conservation groups take aim at the Bush administration's push to open nearly 2 million acres of public land in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to commercial oil shale development. A coalition of groups filed the lawsuits Friday in federal court in Denver to challenge regulations and a plan approved late last year to tap the more than 1 trillion barrels of oil believed to be locked in a large formation under the three states. The plan also covers development of tar sands in Utah. Colorado elected officials have accused the Bush administration of rushing through commercial oil shale rules and plans without adequate review of the potential environmental impacts and even before the technology is proven. Industry and federal officials have said that commercial production is likely at least a decade off. The conservation groups claim in their lawsuits that the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management broke environmental laws by curtailing public comment and failing to consider protecting wilderness-quality land and habitat for the greater sage grouse, under review for possible inclusion on the federal endangered species list. "The BLM, in its stampede to beat the clock before the inauguration, is threatening wildlife, water and wilderness by opening up millions of acres of public land to destructive, unproven oil shale and tar sands development," said Ted Zukoski of Earthjustice, one of the attorneys Advertisement who filed the lawsuits. The 13 groups also claim that regulations setting royalty rates for oil shale violate federal law requiring fair market value for public resources. Companies would pay a 5 percent royalty rate during the first five years of production, compared with 12.5 percent to 18.8 percent for conventional oil and gas production on public lands. Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar called the rate a "pittance" when it was announced in November. He has also called the regulations "premature and flawed." Salazar, a Democrat, is President-elect Barack Obama's choice as interior secretary. Another claim in the lawsuits is that federal agencies cut out the public by not giving people a chance to protest amendments to 10 different management plans for public lands in the area. BLM spokesman Matt Spangler in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the lawsuits Friday night. The same groups have said they will file another lawsuit unless the oil shale plan considers the potential impacts on endangered species. Shale deposits in northwest Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are thought to hold more than 1 trillion barrels of oil. About 800 billion barrels of that are believed to be recoverable. The area is "home to some of the nation's healthiest elk herds, rare plants and more than a dozen species protected as threatened or endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act," according to one of the conservation groups' lawsuits. The Bush administration released final oil shale rules in November, a few weeks after a congressional ban on using federal funds to write final regulations expired. Federal officials have disputed that they rushed the plan or rules through. They point out they've missed deadlines set in the 2005 federal energy bill for completing the oil shale environmental impact statement and regulations. Even after rules are issued, federal officials say, more rounds of environmental reviews and permits from more than 40 federal, state and local agencies would be required before any projects are approved.