Montana Superfund site created by mining leasesGroups in Montana, already home to a huge Superfund site created by mineral mining near Butte, are wary of the climate and environmental impact of new fossil fuel leases. Photo credit: Janie Osborn/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

A group of environmental organizations and land owners are taking the federal government to court over what they say is a failure to adequately consider the impact on climate change of two recent sales of oil and gas leases in Montana.

The case, filed last week, targets two leases that cover about 145,000 acres of public land including the Tongue River Valley and near the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

The complaint contends that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) underestimated the number of wells that would be drilled and amount of greenhouse gas emissions that could be created.

The BLM also didn’t fully analyze the impact of oil and gas exploration and production on underground aquifers and water quality, the lawsuit said. Two of the three landowners who are plaintiffs own an orchard and are particularly concerned about the potential pollution of drinking and irrigation water sources.

“We are pushing for the BLM to do its homework and to get the right calculations and provide the public with the right context so that we can make an informed choice among the alternatives and not just give away our public minerals for industry profits,” said Laura King, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs: WildEarth Guardians, Montana Environmental Information Center and the three landowners.

A BLM spokeswoman declined to comment, citing its policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

The case reflects a larger effort by conservation groups to fight the Trump administration’s plan to increase mining on public lands in the West. Trump’s decision to downsize national monuments, such as Bears Ears in Utah, and open up the land to oil, gas, coal and uranium extraction has ignited  fierce pushback from hunters, fishermen and other outdoorsmen as well as the businesses that support those activities.

But the Trump administration isn’t the first to attract lawsuits that challenge the BLM’s environmental impact assessment of mining leases. Some of the ongoing cases began during the Obama administration and aimed to nudge the federal government to reduce federal leasing because of mining’s impact on climate change.

In the Montana lawsuit, the plaintiffs are asking the court to set aside the lease sales and require the BLM to re-do its environmental assessments.

King said courts have required the government to re-do its climate impact assessments in mining leases before, citing a 2014 decision in High Country Advocates v. U.S. Forest Service that mandated modification of  coal leases in Colorado.

The Montana lawsuit will likely take a year for briefings and hearings before a judge reaches a decision, King said.

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