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Published August 17, 2010, 01:34 PM

Feds would lift block on oil leases in MT, ND, SD

BILLINGS, Mont. — Federal officials want to move forward with oil and gas leases on about 260 square miles in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota that have been held up over climate change concerns.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Federal officials want to move forward with oil and gas leases on about 260 square miles in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota that have been held up over climate change concerns.

The leases in question comprise only a tiny fraction of the more than 70,000 square miles of public land across the country now under lease for oil and gas development.

But they gained added significance in March, when the government agreed to re-examine its leasing program in the three states in response to a lawsuit from environmentalists.

At issue are greenhouse gases emitted by oil company trucks and drilling rigs and industry practices such as flaring gas, which sends methane directly into the atmosphere.

In a series of new studies, the Bureau of Land Management said emissions from anticipated drilling on the leases would be negligible compared with other sources.

“We can’t show a direct tie between these emissions and climate change, so we can’t attach (restrictions on development) to leases,” BLM spokeswoman Mary Apple said Friday.

The agency recommended that drilling be allowed to proceed on about 36,000 acres of leases that were sold in 2008 but later suspended. Also, lease sales would proceed on 130,000 acres that were delayed while the new studies were conducted, BLM spokesman Greg Albright said.

About two dozen leases would remain deferred — because of potential impacts on sage grouse, not greenhouse gas concerns. The size of those leases could not be immediately determined.

The BLM proposal also outlined steps companies can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they are not required to do so.

An attorney for the environmental groups that sued over the 2008 leases said he would continue to push the BLM to take a tougher stance on oil field emissions.

“It’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich with the Western Environmental Law Center. “They’re really deciding to do the same as they did before. There’s been no change.”

Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said the BLM was moving in the right direction.

But Sgamma, whose group until recently was known as the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, noted that the BLM intends to carry out similar reviews prior to future lease sales, adding a new layer of bureaucracy.

“Certainly this has caused an interruption to industry,” she said. “Once you’ve got the process down, hopefully it’s fairly easy to do it and repeat that process.”

Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency says oil and gas operations account for about 23 percent of annual U.S. methane emissions and 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the BLM’s new studies said emissions in Montana would change only slightly if the 166,000 acres now held up gets developed.

“It’s a pretty small number. The highest we have is 0.02 percent of the state total,” Albright said.

A public comment period on the BLM proposal closes Sept. 13.

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Online: Bureau of Land Management studies

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