Montana Offers, Then Defers, Energy Leases on Rocky Mountain Front

Montana Offers, Then Defers, Energy Leases on Rocky Mountain Front

Montana was set to offer more than 800 acres of state land along the Rocky Mountain Front for oil and gas leases before pulling the offer at the last minute. The parcels, which included a 520-acre tract on the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area, were expected to be offered during a June 10 lease sale before being granted a six-month deferral to look for alternatives, according to the Wildlife Management Institute.

The area of northcentral Montana, where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, is known for its unique landscape and diverse array of wildlife and plants that are reminiscent of what much of the region looked like before 19th century westward expansion. A broad coalition of interests banded together in recent years to oppose energy development along the front and successfully lobbied for federal protection. In December 2006, Congress enacted a permanent ban on energy development on federal land, and private groups and the government have spent millions of dollars purchasing conservation easements and buying back energy leases from energy companies. However, the ban does not apply to state and private land, and about 8,600 acres along the front have been leased in the last decade.

Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (DFWP) along with the Montana Wilderness Association and the Montana Wildlife Association had formally objected to the lease sale. "The Rocky Mountain Front is a special place for wildlife, and it's a special place for sportsmen," said DFWP's T.O. Smith. "It's inconsistent for the state to continue leasing along the front when the federal government has made a commitment through legislative action to not lease or develop."

The state is required to manage school trust lands for their most profitable use, and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton stated: "If we don't lease, we're not following the mandate of getting revenue." The state would not even receive all the money it could get from oil and gas development on state lands, however, because of a tax break that significantly reduces the tax burden on new wells.

Sexton said the deferral offers breathing room to work through concerns. "This gives some folks time to look at alternatives." Conservation groups or other interested parties could offer an exchange of other lands with comparable minerals. But if that doesn't happen, the leases will be up again in six months. (jas)

June 18, 2008