Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lifted suspensions on 45 oil and gas leases in Montana after concluding that oil field activities release insignificant amounts of greenhouse gases. But the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), whose settlement agreement with the BLM last March required the agency to suspend the leases and review how oil field activities contribute to climate change, is unsatisfied, and plans to file suit.
"I think they're wrong," says MEIC Director Jim Jensen. "It's very clear that they're wrong."
Jensen uses government data to make his point. When companies extract natural gas from the ground, a certain amount is directly vented into the atmosphere or flared. Exactly how much varies widely—from about 0.1 to 4 percent. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that around 40 percent of that wasted gas can be captured with currently available technologies. Such a reduction, according to the Government Accountability Office, could increase federal royalty payments by about $23 million annually and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to about 16.5 million metric tons of CO2—the annual emissions equivalent of 3.1 million cars.
Western Environmental Law Center attorney Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, who represents MEIC and fellow plaintiffs Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project and WildEarth Guardians in the matter, says increasing federal royalties and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.
"We're trying to prevent and abate greenhouse gas pollution from oil and gas development, and it presents win-win situations," Schlenker-Goodrich says. "If BLM does not take responsibility to keep these emissions out of the atmosphere, then that win-win solution is not going to happen."
The BLM does acknowledge the threat of climate change in its environmental assessment, released Dec. 22, but essentially says lifting the leases does not exacerbate it, or at least the current state of the science doesn't allow the agency to know exactly how lifting the leases would exacerbate it.
"What they've done is that they've underestimated the significance of greenhouse gas pollution, and they've used that underestimation to not take any action now to deal with that," Schlenker-Goodrich says. "Instead, they've punted the issue into the future."
Jensen says MEIC and its partners will soon sue the BLM in federal district court.