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Judge sides with feds in Montana oil lease dispute

Matthew Brown, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- A federal judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit from environmentalists who tried to block almost 80,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Montana in a bid to force companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon said in his ruling that the emissions from future drilling activities would be too small — only a fraction of 1 percent of total emissions in the state — to make a "meaningful contribution" to global greenhouse gas levels.

As a result, the plaintiffs could not show that the Bureau of Land Management lease sales would "lead to climate change impacts resulting in injury to their recreational and aesthetic interests in lands near the leases," Haddon wrote.

The Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians and Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project had argued that the government should force companies as a condition of leasing to take steps to reduce emissions of methane from oil and gas fields.

Methane is considered a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It's emitted by the oil and gas industry through leaking pipelines and other equipment, the venting of excess natural gas, and exhaust from equipment used to drill for, process and transport oil and gas.

BLM spokeswoman Mel Lloyd said the agency was pleased with the ruling, but she was uncertain what its immediate impact would be.

As of last month, there has been no drilling activity yet on the 120 leases in dispute, which are scattered across the state. Companies sometimes wait years to drill depending on market conditions and where leases are located.

The dispute dates to 2008, when the Montana Environmental Information Center challenged a large lease sale that included oil and gas parcels in Montana. The government later agreed to suspend the leases and further analyze the environmentalists' claims. The leases were reissued in 2010, prompting the lawsuit now before Haddon.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich with the Western Environmental Law Center expressed disappointment in Haddon's ruling and said his clients would consider an appeal.

"Fundamentally, we're far more disappointed in this administration's choice — through BLM — not to take proven, economical measures to safeguard our climate by keeping methane out of the atmosphere so that it can be properly used by homes, schools, and businesses," Schlenker Goodrich said in an email to The Associated Press.

Industry groups including the American Petroleum Institute and Western Energy Alliance intervened in the case on the side of the government. They were represented by former U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer.

In a Friday statement, the petroleum institute said the groups that brought the lawsuit had "obstructed" production on the leases.

"BLM did a thorough review before determining that there would be no significant environmental impact resulting from production of oil and gas pursuant to the leases," the group said. "We urged the court to find that the environmental groups did not have standing to bring the litigation and are pleased that this formed the basis of the judge's ruling."