MONTANA

When then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited Montana's Missouri Breaks on a rafting trip down the Missouri River in 1999, he roused fears among some that if the area were declared a monument, it would be put off-limits to oil and gas leasing. Shortly thereafter, the Bureau of Land Management awarded a series of leases to energy companies.

Now, environmentalists hope that a lawsuit they filed against the agency and Macum Energy in March of 2000 will turn the tide against energy development in the area, which was proclaimed the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in January of last year (HCN, 1/29/01: Power on the loose). The suit alleges that the Bureau issued seven of Macum's most current leases without public notice and failed to conduct required environmental assessments.

"There seemed to be a rush by gas developers to get in before the land was given monument status," says Dennis Tighe, past president of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Ralph Gailey, president of Macum, which is a joint venture partner of Icon Oil, U.S., LLC, says he is frustrated because the lawsuit is holding up his small, Billings-based company. Pipelines would be installed along existing trails, he says, and the wells "don't leave any footprint. You can hardly find them."

Meanwhile, final decisions are pending on applications for drilling permits on eight older leases held by Macum, Klabzuba Oil and Gas, and Ocean Energy Resources. A draft environmental assessment issued by the Bureau in January predicted no significant impacts from drilling on those leases, and the Bureau's Don Judice plans to issue the permits by the end of the month. Tighe hopes the lawsuit, which may be heard some time this year, will force the Bureau to tighten environmental regulations on future oil and gas development in the monument.