Environmentalists announced a protest today of a planned Bureau of Land Management sale of 223 oil and gas leases in Montana and North Dakota, saying the agency is failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions and conserve valuable public minerals.
The Western Environmental Law Center said it was protesting every parcel to be offered at the Dec. 9 sale, arguing BLM had failed to prevent the release of methane and other greenhouse gases from oil and gas production.
"The real issue here is acknowledging the significance of greenhouse gas pollutions from oil and gas development" said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney for the New Mexico-based group representing the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and WildEarth Guardians.
"There are a huge number of cost-effective and proven solutions to keep that methane out of the atmosphere and in the pipelines for homes, schools and businesses," Schlenker-Goodrich said.
The so-called fugitive emissions -- coming from drilling rigs, compressors and other oil field equipment -- account for one-fourth of the U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide but roughly 100 times as potent in the near term, according to the group.
The oil and gas sector is responsible for 2 percent of overall domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to federal data.
BLM may still sell the parcels but will have 60 days to resolve the protests before it can issue the leases to winning bidders.
Greg Albright, a spokesman for BLM's Billings office, said no other protests had been received for the upcoming sale.
While BLM reserves the right to impose emissions controls at the drilling stage, it cannot pin specific emissions of greenhouse gases to on-the-ground impacts, Albright said.
"What we do is look at impacts," Albright said. "The state of science today cannot tie a specific emission of greenhouse gases to a specific impact."
A map of the December leases shows most of the parcels are located in eastern Montana and western North Dakota near the prolific Bakken Shale play. Eighty-eight of the parcels are located on Forest Service lands in North Dakota, BLM said.
Reviewing climate impacts
The Western Environmental Law Center last year sued BLM for failing to require leaseholders to clamp down on fugitive emissions and won a settlement in March in which the agency agreed to suspend 61 leases sold in 2008 to conduct additional reviews of the leases' climate change impacts (Land Letter, March 18).
BLM also postponed leases scheduled for April and June to conduct reviews of their climate change impacts.
The settlement required BLM to comply with a January 2001 order issued by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and affirmed in September by Secretary Ken Salazar requiring agencies to "consider and analyze potential climate change impacts when undertaking long-range planning exercises."
In a series of first-time environmental assessments released in August, BLM found that likely annual emissions from oil and gas development in eight Montana and North and South Dakota field offices are roughly equal to those of two coal-fired power plants, but that such emissions could not be directly tied to climate change impacts (Land Letter, Aug. 19).
The agency said it would reinstate the 2008 leases and offer April and June parcels at next month's lease sale. Greenhouse gas assessments would also become standard for oil and gas lease sales in Montana and other states as part of the Interior Department's oil and gas leasing reforms, a BLM spokeswoman said.
But while BLM fulfilled the terms of the March settlement, it is failing to protect public resources and the climate by stipulating that leaseholders minimize methane leaks, Schlenker-Goodrich said.
"They absolutely did not follow the spirit of that order," he said, adding that the Mineral Leasing Act prohibits the waste of public resources and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act prevents the "unnecessary or undue degradation to the environment."
"Prospective oil and gas [lessees] should be on notice," Schlenker-Goodrich added, "that this lease sale is under protest and that we intend to challenge BLM's decision in federal court, assuming our protest is denied."
Industry officials said fugitive emissions from oil and gas production have a negligible impact on the climate and that calculating their effect would delay lease sales and domestic energy production.
"In the West, it's hardly news when environmental groups protest a lease sale," said Marc Smith, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group. "They have to; it's their business. They sue, and the government pays the legal bill."
BLM has found the leases would allow no environmental impact, Smith added, even if likely emissions are grossly overestimated.