Sustainable Missoula: Montana’s public lands are critical for climate progress

The Tongue River is the lifeblood of much of southeast Montana. (WildEarth Guardians)

Montana’s public lands are priceless. They’re an economic lifeblood, a source of clean water and air, home to thriving fish and wildlife, and a cornerstone of the state’s outdoor heritage.

Unfortunately, the state’s public lands are under siege by a fossil fuel industry-driven “energy dominance” agenda, which President Trump and his U.S. Department of the Interior have implemented in full force across the Big Sky State.

This agenda, which puts oil, gas, and coal extraction above all other uses, not only threatens the integrity and vitality of Montana’s public lands, but also promises to worsen the state’s and our nation’s contribution to the climate crisis.

That’s why sustainability advocates, including WildEarth Guardians and others, are taking a stand to defend Montana’s public lands and turn the tide for our planet. 

As a primary goal, we’re aiming for a moratorium on leasing any more public lands for oil and gas extraction.

It surprises folks to hear that under the Trump Administration, there’s been a twelve-fold increase in the amount of public lands offered for lease to the oil and gas industry in Montana.  

Under the “energy dominance” agenda, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is selling lands for oil and gas extraction at a frenetic pace. Much of this development would involve hydraulic fracturing, a risky and environmentally destructive practice.

Worse, the agency is moving ahead with little review or consideration of the environmental, health, and climate implications of authorizing more fossil fuel development. Importantly, the agency is rushing to lease without first assessing whether leasing is even acceptable in the first place.  

In Montana, this has led the Bureau of Land Management to lease public lands that have long been considered safe from drilling. 

These include areas of Beaverhead and Gallatin Counties, lands right next to the town of Livingston, the Original Gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and lands in the fragile Tongue River watershed of southeast Montana.

In 2018, the federal agency even sold areas for oil and gas development right next to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.  

So far in 2019, more than 160,000 acres of public lands have been proposed for the auction block.  This more acreage up for lease than was offered during President Obama’s final four-year term in office.

The Bureau of Land Management has leased thousands of acres of public lands in the Tongue River Valley of southeast Montana, spurred by demands from the fracking industry. (WildEarth Guardians)

Leasing public lands to the oil and gas industry gives companies the right to produce and unleash more carbon pollution. 

A U.S. Geological Survey report from last fall found that fossil fuels produced from federally managed public lands in the U.S. contribute to nearly 25% of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions.  Oil and gas produced from public lands is responsible for nearly 10% of our country’s greenhouse gases.

This pollution includes methane leaks, flaring, and venting at well sites.  However, it mainly includes carbon dioxide from downstream combustion. After all, fossil fuels are produced primarily to be burned, which is the crux of our climate problem.

Which means that as much as safeguarding public lands from the onslaught of oil and gas leasing stands to benefit Montanans, it also means they play a critical role in advancing climate progress in the U.S.

Together with local landowners and our friends with the Montana Environmental Information Center, we’re in federal court in Great Falls seeking to overturn more than 150,000 acres of oil and gas leases that were approved in 2017 and 2018. While our suit aims to defend the state’s public lands and clean water, it’s also about climate accountability.

Now is the time for Montanans to stand up and call for a moratorium on leasing public lands for oil and gas extraction.  

Currently, less than half of all leased public lands in the U.S. are even producing oil and gas. According to statistics from the Bureau of Land Management, only 33% of all leased public lands in Montana are actually producing.

There’s simply no need to sell more of our public lands to the oil and gas industry.

With Governor Bullock pledging the state to climate action, including achieving economy-wide net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, the time is right for reform.

After all, while Montana can and should reduce its in-state greenhouse gases, if oil and gas producers are simply going to export climate pollution out-of-state, then we’ve made no progress toward the goal of net-zero emissions.

Montana’s public lands are amazing in so many ways. They need protection, not more fossil fuel exploitation. 

And for our climate, we need to demand that the Bureau of Land Management put the brakes on leasing our public lands to the oil and gas industry. 

Jeremy Nichols is Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians, a west-wide conservation advocacy group dedicated to protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Guardians has staff and offices in Missoula, Montana, Boise, Idaho, Seattle, Washington, Denver, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

June 21. Sunrise Movement Potluck BBQ. Enjoy the weather, share ideas for climate action in the coming months. All welcome. Please reach out with any questions or if you need transportation help: sunrisemissoula@gmail.com. At Caras Park, noon-1:45 p.m.

June 21. Glass Recycling Drop-off Event. Recycling Works is having another glass bottle collection event. Cost: $5/5-gallon bucket and get $1 off your drink. At Imagine Nation Brewing, 1151 W Broadway, noon-8 p.m.

August 7-11. Help with Sustainability & Zero Waste at the Western Montana Fair. Want to help with the Fair’s ZERO by FIFTY initiative? Sign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Ambassador!

All summer. Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.