Is the Department of the Interior Taking Steps to Protect Montana’s Glaciers?

Beartooth Range in Montana (source: Save the Beartooth Front).

A Delay on an Auction of Oil and Gas Leases

A recent move by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears—to some, at least—to represent a reversal of the federal government’s firm policy of promoting energy extraction on the public lands it manages. On March 5, Zinke announced that he would delay the sale of oil and gas leases in 26 parcels located in several sites in Montana. Several of these parcels are in the foothills surrounding the Beartooth and Absaroka mountain ranges, north of Yellowstone National Park. These ranges contain the second largest glacier area in the state, after Glacier National Park.

This delay offers at least temporary protection for the mountains and glaciers, preserving their scenic quality and reducing the risk that dust and extraction byproducts would land on the glaciers, darkening them and making them melt more quickly. Moreover, it follows a decision in March to postpone the sale of oil and gas leases near Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site, held sacred by Native Americans and of great archaeological importance. These steps contrast sharply with other recent actions of the Department of the Interior to remove lands from protected area status and to permit mining, oil and gas extraction, and other activities in them.

Local Opposition to Energy Extraction on Public Lands

Zinke (right) applauding after Trump signed Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth (source: Department of Interior/Twitter).

This postponement reflects significant opposition within the state to the sale of leases. A local environmental group, Preseve the Beartooth Front, organized a campaign last year for locals to provide public comment to the BLM against the leases. Three environmental groups, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Wilderness Society, and Park County Environmental Council, filed a petition earlier this year, opposing the auction on the grounds that the BLM had not adequately considered potential environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling on wildlife, nearby towns, and rivers.

Residents in the area spoke out against the auction, as did local and county officials, who thought that the drilling would harm tourism. Objections were also raised by state officials, including both senators, Steve Daines, a Democrat, and Jon Tester, a Republican, as well as the governor, Steve Bullock, a Democrat. Bullock, who has recently signaled his broader political ambitions by planning a trip to the key caucus state of Iowa next month, linked environmental quality and economic growth in a recent statement in which he said, “High-tech businesses are attracted to Montana thanks to our exceptional quality of life and outdoor recreation. … Our public lands lead to more jobs and higher wages.”

Gas flaring at a well site (source: Montana Environmental Information Center).

The BLM offered some acknowledgment of these concerns. In a statement issued the day after the announcement of the delay in the auction, it stated, “the following parcels are being deferred or partially deferred… until staff can review the adequacy of the … Resource Management Plans to provide the appropriate level of protection in light of issues raised concerning the view shed, the local economy, and the effects of oil and gas drilling and production on the environment including air quality, drinking water, and overall water quality.“

GlacierHub wrote to the BLM to ask whether the decision about the leases had taken into account “possible effects of mining or energy extraction on glaciers (deposition of dust or particles on ice surfaces). In response, Al Nash, chief of communications at the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas State Office, replied, “The BLM doesn’t conduct a great deal of scientific research other than that directly involved in specific projects. For your broad question regarding impacts to glaciers, you might reach out to the U.S. Geological Survey.“ Though the USGS conducts extensive research on glaciers in Montana, it does not include dust or other light-absorbing particles among the topics which it studies.

Responses to the Delay in the Auction

Some Montana residents were pleased to see that the leases had been postponed, at least temporarily. Jill Belsky, a professor of sociology at the University of Montana and chair of the university’s Department of Society and Conservation, saw this postponement of leases as a step in the right direction. In an interview with GlacierHub, she stated, “Oil and gas exploration is inappropriate for the area. Many of the lands in question are multigenerational ranchers, outfitters and others rightly concerned about impacts of oil and gas exploration on water quality and their livelihoods. Nature-based tourism is also a large and growing part of our state’s economy and employs more people than in oil and gas. The more lands excluded from oil and gas, the better.”

Others are less positive. Ann Hedges, deputy director and lead lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center, communicated her thoughts on Twitter: “Postponing only 27% of lease acreage shouldn’t invoke praise. Cancel them would. Postponing the other 73% would.”:

Grasshopper Glacier and Mt. Wilse in the Absaroka Range (source: Alexandre Lussier/Portland State University).

She elaborated her points in an interview with GlacierHub. “I’m happy for the folks on the Beartooth front, but I remain deeply concerned about the future of leases in that area as well as all of the other leases that were not deferred, and I’m reluctant to pop the champagne as I suffer from history-induced cynicism. He did not cancel those leases or withdraw them. He simply deferred action on them… he didn’t even cancel all of the leases in that area, only some. My cynical side says that the area where the leases were deferred is loaded with wealthier folks. It’s no surprise that Zinke catered to potentially wealthy donors and sacrificed the remaining lease areas.”

Jess Prentice-Dunn, the advocacy director of the Denver-based environmental group Center for Western Priorities, issued a statement that voiced a similar view: “Secterary 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. Of course these lease sales should be postponed. But a temporary deferment for lands that should never have been offered at all is hardly worthy of loud applause. Lands at the doorstep of Yellowstone or the gateway to spectacular cultural sites at Chaco should never have been put on the auction block in the first place.”

Government and Industry Support for Energy Extraction on Public Lands

In contrast, the BLM has espoused a position in favor of energy extraction. Jon Raby, the acting director for the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas State Office, spoke in favor of leasing programs, saying, “We help put people to work, contribute to local economies, and help make America safe through energy independence by providing for responsible oil and gas development.”

Industry groups, who share this view, seemed surprised by the decision. In an interview with the Washington Post, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent energy producers, said, “It seems as though Secretary Zinke is feeling pressure from those who do not want oil and natural gas.” The Western Energy Alliance has supported the shift from public to online auctions of leases, a change which would reduce the opportunities for public comment. Sgamma is a member of the Interior Department’s Royalty Policy Committee and met last year with Zinke to promote a loosening of federal restrictions on the granting of leases.

An Uncertain Future for Montana’s Glaciers

Fishing at a lake in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (source: Montanaangler/Instagram).

Perhaps seeking to placate industry and environmental camps, Zinke stated, “Multiple use is about balance. I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study, and appropriately we have decided to defer [these parcels].”

It seems likely that both groups will closely follow the moves of the Department of the Interior. The pristine quality of one of the state’s largest areas of glaciers, and of the mountain ranges in which they are located, is at stake.