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Published November 23, 2010, 06:01 PM

BLM lease sale protested over climate concerns

BILLINGS, Mont. — Environmental groups on Tuesday sought to cancel the December sale of oil and gas leases on more than 234 square miles of public lands in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

By: Matthew Brown, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — Environmental groups on Tuesday sought to cancel the December sale of oil and gas leases on more than 234 square miles of public lands in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

In a formal protest letter sent to the Bureau of Land Management, the three groups said the agency had not done enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions from oil field activities.

Any leases sold in the Dec. 9 sale will not be issued until the protest is resolved.

The three environmental groups — Montana Environmental Information Center, Earthworks and WildEarth Guardians — sued the BLM over the same issue last year.

The case was settled when the BLM pledged environmental reviews on suspended leases totaling more than 50 square miles and all future lease sales.

The agency later determined that greenhouse gas emissions from drilling rigs, compressors and other oil field equipment were insignificant and could not be linked directly to climate change.

Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians said the BLM deserved credit for changing its leasing process to make room for additional environmental review, but it hasn’t followed through with ground-level changes.

Nichols and others involved in the protest point out that technology is available to capture emissions from oil field activities such as the venting of methane — a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.

“There’s a disconnect. They know what’s out there, they know what can be done,” Nichols said. “It’s almost like they view this as jumping through the hoops, and jumping through the hoops doesn’t do anything to protect the environment and promote the responsible development of oil and gas.”

Marc Smith with the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas trade association, defended the BLM’s findings about greenhouse gas emissions from oil field activity.

“The finding of no significant impact speaks for itself,” Smith said. “It begs the question, what is the greater good? Stopping the American economy for an impact you can’t measure, or moving ahead with ideas that improve overall power sector emissions, create jobs and reduce reliance on foreign oil?”

The 50 square miles of leases suspended last year were not included in the upcoming December sale.

The BLM has recommended they proceed, but a final decision is not expected until after the December sale, said BLM spokesman Greg Albright.

Federal oil and gas lease sales in the Dakotas and Montana totaled a record $75.4 million during fiscal 2009, and parcels in western North Dakota’s oil patch accounted for the overwhelming bulk of interest for the sixth straight year.

North Dakota had $74.2 million in leases in fiscal 2009, according to the BLM.

Only two sales were held in fiscal 2010, which ended in September. The sales in November and January fetched more than $30 million, with North Dakota accounting for about $27 million of the total.

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