The Bureau of Land Management on Monday removed about 17,300 acres of land in central Montana from an upcoming oil and natural gas lease auction, just a week before the scheduled sale.
The Interior Department, which oversees one in every five acres of land in the United States, was set to auction off leases for 109 parcels stretching across the Big Sky State from the Canadian border to Wyoming.
But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who before joining the Trump administration represented Montana in Congress, decided to withdraw 26 parcels from consideration, along with portions of two others. A cadre of local and national environmental groups had filed formal protests against the sale, contending that drilling would adversely impact the Yellowstone River and other areas.
Interior will proceed starting next Monday with the auction of the remaining 83 parcels, which encompass nearly 46,200 acres.
Zinke initially tweeted his decision before issuing a more detailed statement that said further study was needed before part of the sale could take place.
“Multiple use is about balance,” his statement noted. “I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not.”
The withdrawal of Montana land from fossil-fuel development, even if just temporary, is the latest whipsaw in Interior’s oil and gas policy as officials push to auction off a slew of leases near protected areas in the West.
Last week, Zinke postponed the sale of leases covering 4,434 acres near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred tribal site in northwestern New Mexico. In January, he unexpectedly announced via a tweet that Florida would be exempt from an upcoming five-year offshore oil-and-gas development plan at the behest of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who will likely run for the Senate.
BLM is still set to auction 43 parcels on March 20 that encompass nearly 52,000 acres in southern Utah, near Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments and Canyonlands National Park.
“Secretary Zinke is once again treating America’s public lands like contestants on a reality show, handing out roses to the places he chooses to save while casting the rest aside,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities.
A formal protest filed in January by three environmental groups — the Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association and Park County Environmental Council — charged that BLM officials had not done an adequate review of the environmental impact that drilling in Montana would have on the city of Livingston, the Yellowstone River and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, as well as on sage grouse habitat.
The groups also charged that bureau officials improperly relied on executive and secretarial orders adopted in the past year to override land management plans put in place under the Obama administration, which required the BLM to look for alternative places to lease if drilling in an area is likely to damage habitat for sage grouse, an imperiled bird species out West.
“Thus, there are reasonably foreseeable impacts from the irreversible and irretrievable commitment represented by leasing, and these impacts cannot be ignored,” the groups wrote. “If leases are issued now, it becomes difficult or impossible for BLM to change course later.”
Nada Culver, who directs the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center, said in an email that the remaining parcels set to be auctioned next week will still “affect greater sage-grouse habitat and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.”
Oil and gas industry representatives expressed concern about Zinke’s sudden shift in priorities in Montana and New Mexico. In New Mexico, Zinke changed course after tribal leaders and the state’s two Democratic senators argued that he had short-circuited an interagency review aimed at assessing cultural, historic and natural resources in the area.
“It seems as though Secretary Zinke is feeling pressure from those who do not want oil and natural gas development,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance. “Livingston is an area that hasn’t historically had much oil and natural gas activity. The concerns expressed are typical of communities that aren’t used to development and how it’s done responsibly to protect the environment while coexisting with recreation.”
While Zinke has pressed for greater energy exploration on public lands since taking office a year ago, he had often backed restrictions on such activities in his home state. Last summer, for example, he called for barring new gold mining claims on federal lands near Yellowstone National Park.
He has recommended downsizing several national monuments established by both Democratic and Republican presidents, in part to allow for activities such as drilling, grazing, fishing and logging. In December, President Trump scaled back two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, sparking a furor among environmental and Native American groups
But Zinke has also called for the designation of a new national monument in northwest Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine Area, a site important to the Blackfeet Nation that has been targeted for energy development.