The Bush administration’s push for increased oil and gas development in the West just got a boost from the Bureau of Land Management. In April, the agency issued two separate decisions that pave the way for 66,000 new coalbed methane wells and 5,000 conventional oil and gas wells in the Powder River Basin by 2011.

The decisions do "not approve any drilling applications," says Greg Albright, external affairs specialist for BLM’s Montana state office. "Before we would approve a drilling application, we would do another level of environmental study that would be specific to a particular application." But environmentalists, landowners and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe have filed four separate lawsuits against the agency. The lawsuits claim that the drilling will deplete aquifers, pollute surface water, fragment wildlife habitat, harm threatened and endangered species and violate the rights of private landowners with federally-owned mineral rights under their property.

"The (decision) makes a mockery out of our federal public-land laws and the federal trust responsibility to our tribe," says Gail Small, director of Native Action, a nonprofit Native American advocacy organization. "They have failed miserably to adequately analyze or mitigate not only tribal concerns, but the general public’s concerns."

The decisions are online at http://www.mt.blm.gov/.