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The federal government is moving forward with oil and gas leasing on 6,277 acres of Bureau of Land Management property in Montana following a judicial order directing the Department of the Interior to resume lease sales on federal lands.

The BLM Montana/Dakotas State Office is asking for public feedback on leases involving 14 parcels in Montana that had been considered for auction before President Joe Biden’s pause on new lease sales went into effect. The moratorium was initiated with a Jan. 27 executive order directing the Interior Department to complete a comprehensive review of the leasing program “including potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities.”

The same day Biden signed the order, it was challenged with a lawsuit filed by Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry group representing 200 member companies. The lawsuit sought to reverse the moratorium by arguing that Biden exceeded his presidential authority in issuing it. 

In March, Montana joined a coalition of 12 other states in another lawsuit seeking to overturn the moratorium. Western District of Louisiana Judge Terry Doughty sided with the states in a June ruling granting a preliminary injunction. Doughty’s order directed the government to resume the federal leasing program

On Aug. 16, the Interior Department said it had appealed Doughty’s ruling, but would comply with the order while the department’s appeal is pending.

In a press release about the resumption, BLM said a review of the agency’s oil and gas leasing program is ongoing, and that the agency will continue analyzing changes necessary to meet the president’s goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.

“These new plans to sell public lands for fracking are nothing but a shattered promise from the Biden administration to put climate, justice and health first.”

Wild Earth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols

The resumption appears to have pleased neither industry groups nor environmentalists. The former say the federal government is dragging its feet. The latter say the Biden administration is reneging on its commitment to aggressively curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said the auctions again under consideration won’t occur until February 2022 and those “parcels are ready to put on the calendar this year, not six months from now.”

“The environmental analysis was already completed for these parcels,” Sgamma said. “Doing new scoping and analysis is a stalling tactic.”

She said she hopes her group’s lawsuit progresses quickly enough to “compel the department to dispense with the stall tactics.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who was party to the states’ lawsuit, was similarly unimpressed with the government’s announcement. 

“Slow walking compliance with this federal court order that resulted from our lawsuit is just the latest example of Biden’s war on energy produced in America, all while he begs foreign nations like Venezuela, Russia, and Iran to pump more oil,” he said in a statement emailed to MTFP.

For their part, conservation groups questioned the integrity of the leasing system and expressed frustration with its impact on climate goals. Aubrey Bertram, staff attorney for Helena-based nonprofit Wild Montana, said resumption of the leasing program undermines Montana’s outdoor recreation economy and weakens conservation work necessary to fight climate change. 

It “returns us to a broken leasing system” that “created the absurd circumstances we’re in today, whereby industry is sitting on 36 years’ worth of leases in Montana at a moment when the market is favorable and yet not a single rig is currently operating in the state.”

According to reporting by KTVQ, two horizontal drilling rigs set up shop in eastern Montana last month, representing the first time there have been operational rigs in the state since the start of the pandemic.

“These new plans to sell public lands for fracking are nothing but a shattered promise from the Biden administration to put climate, justice and health first,” Wild Earth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director Jeremy Nichols said in an emailed statement. “We simply can’t frack our way to a safe climate and [we] can’t afford to keep selling lands to the oil and gas industry.”

The public has until Oct. 1 to comment on the potential sale of the new Montana leases. Portions or all of more than 20 sections of land in the state totalling 6,277 acres are being considered for leasing.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.