Upper Missouri Waterkeeper joined nearly 40 other conservation organizations to push the Department of Interior to reform the antiquated federal onshore oil and gas leasing program that directly threatens Montana’s Big Hole and Beaverhead river valleys in a letter sent last week.
On April 15, Upper Missouri Waterkeeper joined organizations representing conservation voices in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon, New York, and Washington D.C. in submitting common sense recommendations and reforms to the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland as the department reviews the federal public lands oil and gas program. Among other recommendations, the antiquated oil and gas leasing process must reform the institutional preference for development over conservation, eliminate clean-up cost shifts onto American taxpayers, assess climate impacts, expand public participation and tribal consultation, and protect our waterways and way of life.
Reforms and recommendations include:
- Establish a new mandate for the onshore program that recognizes oil and gas leasing as a discretionary action, rather than the dominant use of public lands, that is authorized only when weighed against other uses of public lands including recreation, fish and wildlife conservation, and renewable energy development.
- Guarantee robust public participation and tribal consultation during all leasing and permitting decisions.
- Limit the quantity and scope of competitive sales by clarifying that lease sales are not required and that BLM has the authority to declare lands ineligible for leasing.
- Revoke the informal nomination process that authorizes anonymous lease nominations and switch to a formal nomination process that allows BLM to strategically identify lands suitable for nomination.
- Develop and employ resource “screens” to evaluate nominated leases. These evaluations help reduce conflicts with other uses and include a prohibition on leases with low or no oil and gas potential.
- Ensure the public interest is served by requiring a “public interest” determination prior to issuing noncompetitive leases, and evaluating applicants for their ability to undertake development and make rental payments to avoid the issuance of noncompetitive leases that fail to become developed.
- Strengthen the onshore program’s fiscal framework by increasing the royalty rate, rental rates, and minimum lease bids to guarantee a fair return to taxpayers and discourage the hoarding of undeveloped leases.
- Strengthen the onshore program’s bonding and reclamation framework by eliminating the use of blanket bonds, increasing the oversight of inactive wells and limit the ability of operators to indefinitely delay final reclamation, and work with Congress to obtain funds to clean up orphaned wells and issue a user fee to cover additional reclamation costs.
- Limit participation by speculators and bad actors by establishing criteria to determine “responsible qualified” bidders and prohibiting participation by companies that violate reclamation and other environmental protection standards and fail to make required payments.
- Strengthen oversight of lease suspensions by requiring NEPA compliance and public participation prior to granting lease suspensions.
“We believe that DOI should promptly initiate a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) process and rulemaking to revise BLM’s oil and gas regulations. This should not be the sole vehicle for reforming the program, however, as DOI has existing and wide-ranging authority to make meaningful change outside of the rulemaking process.
The federal onshore oil and gas leasing program has put Montana’s Big Hole and Beaverhead valleys at risk from reckless oil and gas development proposals in 2018 and 2019, but thankfully we achieved temporary deferrals of the lease sales. Oil and gas development in Montana’s headwaters threatens pollution impacts while also requiring massive daily quantities of water, exacerbating the water scarcity challenges the Big Hole is plagued by each year and threatening our world-class fisheries and the jobs and businesses they support.
The true wealth of southwest Montana lies in clean and healthy landscapes and waterways, not oil and gas development. We look forward to the DOI’s long-awaited reform and will continue working toward permanent withdrawal of southwest Montana landscapes from the federal minerals leasing program.