Missoula-based 350 Montana joined other environmental groups across the nation in protesting the Biden administration’s continuation of oil and gas lease sales on public land.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management Montana-Dakotas State Office held a sale of oil and gas leases on 23 parcels totaling 3,406 acres in Fallon, Powder River, Richland and Roosevelt counties in Montana, and McKenzie, Mountrail, and Williams counties in North Dakota.

It’s the first lease sale since January 2021 when President Joe Biden signed an executive order placing a moratorium on oil and gas leases of federal land and waters, making good on a campaign promise to address climate change. Six months later, a Trump-appointed Louisiana federal judge stopped the moratorium while related challenges worked their way through the court system.

In the meantime, three other lawsuits in North Dakota, Wyoming and Louisiana challenging leasing sale delays have the administration struggling to keep Biden’s promise.

While it fights to restore the moratorium, the Department of the Interior canceled three offshore leases less than two months ago. But it angered environmental groups by going ahead with a reduced sale of 173 leases on BLM land, accounting for 144,000 acres in nine states: Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Alabama.

In May, the Western Environmental Law Center filed objections to the Montana/Dakota leases on behalf of 14 environmental groups, arguing, among other things, that the Louisiana ruling against the moratorium doesn’t automatically require the BLM to hold a sale. Similar objections were lodged in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Erin Carey, Bureau of Land Management Missoula field manager, greets 350 Montana member Bill Geer outside of the Missoula BLM Office on Tuesday. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Erin Carey, Bureau of Land Management Missoula field manager, greets 350 Montana member Bill Geer outside of the Missoula BLM Office on Tuesday. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

On Tuesday, about a dozen supporters of 350 Montana voiced similar objections in front of the Missoula BLM office, although the Miles City and North Dakota BLM offices oversee the proposed leases. Jeff Smith, 350 Montana executive director, said the Center for Biological Diversity asked his organization to protest along with a coalition of more than 1,200 groups dubbed “People vs. Fossil Fuels,” which includes several 350-related groups, faith organizations and Native American groups.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the highest authority in what we’re seeing, says we have a brief but rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all. We have one decade. That’s why we’re here today,” Smith said. “We have a message for Uncle Joe and his BLM director, Missoulian Tracy Stone-Manning: it’s time to break this closed loop. Fossil fuel leasing and drilling, building more fossil fuel infrastructure, creating more greenhouse gases, causing more destruction of our life-support systems and then more leasing and drilling. Today, we are joining in a national day of protest.”

Retired Missoula teacher Randy York said he didn’t agree with people who say energy production should move toward natural gas because it’s “cleaner.” One of the reasons it isn’t cleaner is natural gas extraction also produces methane, which the industry doesn’t bother to collect. Instead, it flares the methane byproduct, releasing a greenhouse gas that the Environmental Protection Agency says is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

“I could go to a transition with natural gas; however, first thing has to happen is the BLM, the EPA, they have to start enforcing current laws about methane leaking and we have to tighten them. Most of what we are leaking can be stopped with current technology and minimal costs. Hopefully, the fossil fuel industry will use some of their increasing profits to get serious about stopping methane leakage,” York said.

In March, Accountable.US reported that the top 25 oil and gas companies scooped up a record $237 billion in profits in 2021, including Shell, ExxonMobile and Chevron, which each reported more than $15 billion.

In the past, environmental groups have criticized oil and gas leases on public land not only because of the threat of more carbon emissions but also because companies often buy 10-year leases and then so nothing but lock up public land. David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, said in September 2020 that companies would often proposed and lease parcels that had little geological potential to contain oil and gas. The leases are also dirt-cheap – the BLM charged a rental rate of $1.50 an acre for decades – and many leases made no money because they had only one bidder.

For lease sale this June, the Biden administration has tried to correct some of that. The BLM was more judicious about which parcels it would auction, reducing the extent of the original proposal by 80% and prioritizing parcels adjacent to already existing leases. The BLM also said it’s raising the royalty rate to 18.75% from 12.5% “in keeping with rates charged by States and private landowners.”

Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog, pointed out the BLM has yet to go through the rule-making process to make the higher royalty rate permanent. Public Citizen urged making the rate permanent along with increases in other fees and bonding requirements sufficient to ensure that developed areas are cleaned up.

But People vs. Fossil Fuels goes further, calling on Biden to declare a climate emergency and use his executive authority to stop all federal land projects. While one of the oil industry lawsuits demands that the administration create a new five-year plan to highlight offshore leasing, some of the coalition groups are pushing for a five-year plan with no new offshore leasing.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago by the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians challenges the BLM for 3,500 oil and gas permits already issued in New Mexico and Wyoming during the first 16 months of Biden’s administration.

“The agency’s cursory approval of more than 3,500 drilling permits contradicts President Biden’s pledges to address the terrifying threat of climate change. Every new well takes polar bears and many other species one step closer to extinction,” said Brett Hartl, Center for Biological Diversity government affairs director.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.