Federal officials want to move forward with oil and gas leases on about 260 square miles in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota that have been held up over climate change concerns.
The government agreed in March to re-examine its leasing program in the three states after environmentalists filed a lawsuit seeking reductions in greenhouse gases released by companies during drilling.
But in a series of studies released Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management said emissions from oil and gas drilling were negligible compared with other sources.
The agency is recommending that drilling be allowed to proceed on about 36,000 acres of leases sold in 2008 but later suspended. Lease sales would be held in December on 130,000 acres that were deferred.
At issue are greenhouse gases emitted by oil company trucks and equipment, and industry practices such as flaring methane directly into the atmosphere.
The new BLM proposal includes steps companies can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but no requirements that they do so, said BLM spokesman Greg Albright.
An attorney for the environmental groups that sued over the 2008 leases said those steps were not enough.
"It's a lot of talk and not a lot of action," said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich with the Western Environmental Law Center. "They're really deciding to do the same as they did before. There's been no change."
Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency says oil and gas operations account for about 23 percent of annual U.S. methane emissions and 2 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the BLM's new studies said emissions in Montana would change only slightly under drilling that is anticipated if the 166,000 acres now held up gets developed.
"It's a pretty small number. The highest we have is 0.02 percent of the state total," Albright said.
A public comment period on the BLM proposal closes Sept. 13.
Bureau of Land Management studies: http://tinyurl.com/27x6hqx
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