- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The postponement of some oil and gas lease sales by the U.S. Interior Department is drawing criticism from Republicans in Congress who say federal officials are bending to the wishes of environmentalists.

Lawmakers from 11 states asked U.S. Interior Department Assistant Secretary Janice Schneider to explain the delays by Jan. 5. They cited postponed sales on public lands involving 37,500 acres in Utah and 507 acres in Arkansas and Michigan.

A left-leaning group focused on energy development on public lands said the Republicans’ criticism was overblown and ignored low oil prices that have dampened industry interest in acquiring more leases.

The criticism against Interior was led by two Utah House Republicans - Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop and Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.

Also signing onto a Wednesday letter to Schneider were Republican lawmakers from Louisiana, Arkansas, Michigan, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and several other Western states.

The postponed lease sales have been rescheduled for early 2016. BLM officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Acreage leased by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management dropped sharply over the past eight years, according to statistics kept by the Interior Department. More than 4 million acres were leased in 2007, compared to 1.2 million acres in 2014.

The recent postponements “raise serious doubts about the BLM’s ability to conduct its statutory mandate,” the Republicans wrote. They said the delays “appear to be precipitated by attempts of environmental groups to disrupt and burden the lawful activities of the BLM.”

Much of the recent decline in acreage leased is connected to efforts to ensure a ground-dwelling bird, the greater sage grouse, is not imperiled by drilling. Millions of acres nominated by the industry for leasing were put on hold while government agencies crafted conservation plans for grouse.

Many of those conservation plans are now in place and officials announced in October that grouse do not merit protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Still, it’s uncertain when or if leases that have been held up will go up for sale.

Other factors, such as low oil prices, also have factored into the leasing decline, said Chris Saeger with the Western Values Project.

“This is a solution in search of problem,” Saeger said of the Republicans’ demand for answers. “It’s unfair to BLM to make these accusations, particularly when we’re only talking about a four-month delay for relatively understandable reasons.”

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