On Tuesday, the Trump administration published a proposal to allow more oil and gas development on national forests. Some of Montana’s conservation organizations are already pushing back.

The proposed rule is intended to make Forest Service policy match that of the Department of the Interior, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, to “provide more clarity and consistency for oil and gas permitting on public lands,” according to a U.S. Forest Service release.

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management controls and permits all federal mineral rights, including those below U.S. Forest Service land. But the Forest Service has to approve all above-ground operations and construction in national forests.

The proposed rule would remove environmental considerations as criteria for decisions to approve plans, limiting the Forest Service to protecting only specific, named natural resources. Gone would be opportunities to address climate change or protect vital wild places, such as the Badger-Two Medicine area, which recently went through a four-decade battle to reject some illegally issued leases.

The proposed regulations would limit the agency’s ability to call off any oil drilling that the Bureau of Land Management slated for its lands. Instead, the new rule gives the Secretary of the Interior “the final decision whether to issue oil and gas leases on Federal lands, including National Forest System lands,” according to the Federal Register.

“Montanans understand the value of our public lands and the economic benefits they bring our local economy through outdoor recreation,” said Tom Puchlerz, Montana Wildlife Federation president. “Reducing the public’s opportunity to weigh in on decisions affecting our National Forests will reduce transparency and lead to further degradation of our highly valued landscapes.”

During the Trump administration, the BLM has abandoned its multiple-use mission, allowing oil and gas leasing of public land to skyrocket. In May 2019, the BLM replaced its original conservation-focused mission statement with one that prioritizes economic factors and development of public land, and several quarterly lease auctions since 2016 have listed hundreds of parcels for bid.

Once a lease is purchased, oil and gas companies can hold them for 10 years without developing them and they can sell them to other private companies. In 2017, BLM records showed that only half of 26 million acres under lease were producing any oil and gas. In Nevada, only 69 leases have gone into production over the last century. In Montana, 1.4 million acres or two-thirds of leased BLM land is sitting idle. And once fossil fuel companies own those leases, they can lock the public out of millions of acres.

In addition, investigations have found that oil and gas companies have asked the BLM to put particular parcels up for auction, but then they don’t bid. They know that any lease that doesn’t get bids is put up for non-competitive leasing where the companies can buy them for $1.5o an acre, a price that hasn’t changed since the 1980s.

A Congressional Budget Office report found that between 1996 and 2003, only 3% of noncompetitive leases were developed for oil and gas by the end of 10 years.

To stop oil and gas companies to locking up public land on the cheap, Sen. Jon Tester introduced the Leasing Market Efficiency Act in July, which would keep any noncompetitive leases in the public domain.

Now, even though there are more leases than the oil and gas industry can use, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wants the Forest Service to follow suit, in spite of the fact that the oil and gas industry is floundering due to low prices. So far this year, 23 oil producers and 18 oilfield service firms have declared bankruptcy, according to law firm Haynes and Boone.

Purdue has been pushing rules and exemptions that reduce public input as part of his blueprint to expedite Forest Service management. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to allow the public to comment on the management of public lands, but that’s been whittled away over the past few years as the Forest Service has created more “categorical exclusions.”

This rule takes the reduction in public input one step further.

Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said the proposed rule would promote development of public land energy resources.

“Updating our regulations about oil and gas resources will help us be more efficient, while improving customer service,” Christiansen said in the release.

But not everyone wants efficiency at the expense of democracy.

The Montana Wildlife Federation said the new rule would not only cut the public out of the process, but it would also give more influence to companies that don’t follow Forest Service laws.

“This misguided rule is an affront to hunters and anglers, as well as the world class outdoor recreation values we share in Montana,” said Frank Szollosi, Montana Wildlife Federation executive director. “While we should be working to improve our National Forests for fish and wildlife, the Trump Administration continues to prioritize special interests, wants to reduce public participation in the leasing process and open more precious public land to oil and gas development.”

Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior counsel for the National Audubon Society, also criticized the removal of public oversight in favor of corporate gain.

“This is not just a conservation issue, it’s putting our communities at risk,” Culver said.
“Replacing forested areas and grasslands with drill pads and access roads not only means fewer birds like Mallards and Prairie Warblers, but it also degrades our lands and natural spaces, and threatens water supplies for millions of people.”

Other groups that have voiced opposition include the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The public process is still being used for the proposed rule, so anyone wishing to comment should do so before Nov. 2. Send written comments to USDA-Forest Service. Attn: Director-MGM Staff, 1617 Cole Boulevard, Building 17, Lakewood, CO 80401. Or submit them electronically by entering “0596-AD33” in the search box at www.regulations.gov.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.