A federal appeals court must decide if the Obama administration gave energy companies sufficient notice that it was scrapping oil and gas leases auctioned off near national parks in Utah in the closing days of the Bush presidency.
The sale near Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument was protested by environmentalists, including Robert Redford, and prompted an act of civil disobedience by a University of Utah student who entered the bidding and drove up prices.
Energy companies are trying to win back the leases and asked the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Thursday to reconsider whether a news conference by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar soon after President Barack Obama took office counts as public notice of his final decision.
The government argues that the Feb. 4, 2009, announcement and an internal memo two days later served as notice. The energy companies claim that the new administration didn't follow typical notification procedures and that the decision wasn't final until the Bureau of Land Management carried out Salazar's decision on Feb. 12, 2009.
"It would be a very interesting world if we treated politicians' press conferences as orders," said Mike Beatty, the lawyer representing the energy companies, after the hearing.
Judge Carlos Lucero, though, scoffed at the idea that an Interior secretary can't take action until bureaucrats carry out his orders.
The timing is important because the companies had 90 days to appeal Salazar's decision, and if the clock started ticking with his announcement, the energy companies didn't file their lawsuit in time to challenge it. If they did file in time, Salazar's decision would be up for review.
In September 2010, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled that the suit was filed too late but also said that Salazar overstepped his authority in canceling the leases.
Salazar said he voided the leases because of their proximity to the parks and faulted the Bureau of Land Management for failing to consult the National Park Service before leasing the lands. He also questioned whether an environmental analysis justifying the sale was adequate.
At the time of his announcement, the leases were on hold because of a lawsuit by environmentalists.
The student who joined in the bidding at the Dec. 19, 2008, auction, Tim DeChristopher, was prosecuted after he couldn't pay the $1.7 million tab he ran up. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Thursday's hearing in Denver was the latest public show of conflict between the Obama administration and the energy industry.
Last week, the administration banned new hard rock mining on more than a million acres near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves. And on Wednesday, the president blocked the proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline on private land from Canada to Texas, though the issue may not be dead.