Washington, DC - Federal officials are poised to give away significant petroleum and coal holdings as part of a controversial land exchange between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the State of Utah, according to an agency memo released today by the Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The land exchange, which BLM land appraisers and other staff say would shortchange the federal treasury by millions of dollars, is embodied in a bill introduced by Utah Rep. Chris Cannon. In a July 25 memo, BLM minerals specialist James Kohler states that his agency is offering to the State of Utah land "known to contain significant mineral resources" but which Interior Department negotiators have said has "no or nominal mineral potential."
Mr. Kohler cites several examples where sizeable oil, gas, coal and tar sands deposits are completely ignored or substantially devalued by federal officials handling the land swap, even though the exchange is supposed to bring equal value to the State and the federal government. "The Department of the Interior has repeatedly employed a highly politicized, back-of-the-envelope approach to negotiated land trades," stated Janine Blaeloch, Director of the Western Land Exchange Project.
Blaeloch's organization forwarded questions raised by BLM appraisers to the House Resources Committee, which has since tabled the bill (HR 4968) until after the August recess. "Interior has abandoned its duty to protect the interests of the public." The Kohler memo also points out that BLM staff was prevented from performing minerals assessments before certain tracts were included in the exchange, and that entirely new tracts were added at the last minute to the federal-state negotiations without any kind of evaluation.
"At a time when President Bush is calling for a new accountability, his own appointees are encouraged to be grossly irresponsible with the public's assets in their custody," commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization has filed whistleblower complaints on behalf of BLM appraisers. "It is not just the BLM land appraisers but also the minerals specialists who say this latest Utah exchange does not pass the smell test."