Trump Administration relaxes rules for oil and gas drilling in National Forests

The Trump administration has released its plan to make it easier for companies to drill for oil and gas on U.S. Forest Service lands. Public comments concerning the proposed rule are being accepted through November 2, 2020.  

The proposed rule would cut the public out of the process that decides whether and which lands will be opened to oil and gas drilling. It would also give excessive leeway to companies that don’t follow US Forest Service (USFS) laws and weaken that agency’s ability to protect public land from development and degradation.

By adopting this dramatic departure from its long-standing role, the Forest Service would give away its right to serve as a check on leasing in those places that need protection.  

“Southwest Montana’s National Forests are treasured by Montanans for their high quality streams, wildlife diversity, and outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities. Our National Forests deserve more scrutiny and public participation when it comes to oil and gas development, not less,” said Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s executive director, Guy Alsentzer. 

The proposed rule is further evidence that we are losing what we have worked so hard for in protecting public lands in Montana. The result is the Forest Service turning a deaf ear to the public’s input through recommendations and comments into decisions and issues affecting the Forests. The proposed rule would essentially give lip service to robust public input and environmental considerations in many future Forest Service decisions.  This is simply wrong.  The Trump Administration’s new directive to the Forest Service seems to have lost sight of the proper balance it must strike in adhering to the public interest.

National forest lands also serve a vital role in mitigating climate change by storing carbon. Under this new rule, oil and gas development could escalate, increasing carbon emissions and exacerbating the climate crisis, putting the health of humans and forests at risk at a time when public health is the nation’s top concern.  

Specifically, the rule would: 

· Reduce public input and transparency by removing the requirement that a Forest Service office give public notice of the decision to approve a Surface Use Plan of Operations, the specific plan for development. 

 · Allow the Forest Service to skip important and necessary environmental reviews for leasing decisions. This, together with other administration roll backs of NEPA regulations, undermines that law’s role in good forest management. 

 · Make it more difficult for the Forest Service to stop bad lease sales by removing explicit confirmation of USFS consent as a standard step in the leasing process.  

 · Remove environmental considerations as criteria for decisions to approve plans. 

 · Loosen the rules by giving developers unbounded discretion to extend deadlines and comply with operating standards. Currently, compliance deadlines can only be extended if the operator cannot meet them due to factors out of their control. 

 · Limit the Forest Service to only protect specific, named natural resources and ignore opportunities to address climate change or protect vital wild places. 

By filtering air and water, lands managed by the USFS provide clean drinking water, clean air and countless recreation opportunities for millions of people and serve an important role in tackling the climate and extinction crises. Here in Montana, USFS lands protect vital headwaters of our renown rivers, supporting blue ribbon trout fisheries and providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Montanans, both urban and rural.