BILLINGS – A federal judge has approved a first-of-its-kind settlement requiring the government to suspend 38,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Montana so it can gauge how oil field activities contribute to climate change.
At issue are the greenhouse gases emitted by drilling machinery and industry practices such as venting natural gas directly into the atmosphere.
Environmentalists – who sued when the Montana leases were sold in 2008 – argued the industry has allowed too much waste and uses inefficient technologies that could easily be updated.
Under the deal approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, the Bureau of Land Management will suspend the 61 leases in Montana within 90 days. They will have to go through a new round of environmental reviews before the suspensions can be lifted.
“We view this as a very big deal, if a modest first step, in the BLM addressing climate change in oil and gas development,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich. “It’s quite a dirty process, but there are ways to clean it up.”
Plaintiffs in the case were the Montana Environmental Information Center, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and Wild Earth Guardians.
A parallel lawsuit challenging 70,000 acres of federal lands leased in New Mexico remains pending.
Industry representatives contend emissions from oil and gas fields are necessary to develop a valuable domestic resource. And they argue that natural gas still comes in ahead of dirtier fuels like coal in terms of climate change contributions.
Oil and gas operations contribute about 23 percent of annual U.S. methane emissions and 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A BLM spokesman, Greg Albright, said reviewing lease sales for climate change would be a first for the agency. How it will be done was still being worked out, and it was unclear if the BLM would adopt such reviews as a standard requirement.
“This is really early, so I don’t know what the ramifications will be,” Albright said.
Complicating the effort, the Montana leases are scattered across several regions of the state, in areas subject to different environmental documents used to guide land management decisions.
An oil and gas industry group, the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, intervened in the Montana case in a bid to keep the leases active for drilling.
The group’s director of government affairs, Kathleen Sgamma, said the BLM’s climate change review shouldn’t hold up the leases too long because they were acquired speculatively, meaning there’s no guarantee of drilling.
“At the leasing stage, the analysis by definition can’t be all that in-depth,” she said. “You have absolutely no ability to quantify greenhouse gas emissions.”