Rural Landowners, Farmers, and Conservation Groups Celebrate Court Victory Halting Risky Oil and Gas Giveaway of 150,000 Acres of Montana Public Lands


Federal judge rules BLM failed to consider risks to Montana’s environment and water supply before issuing 287 oil and gas leases


Elizabeth Trotter, Earthjustice, (305) 332-5395


Bonnie Martinell, landowner of Boja Farm in Bridger, MT, (406) 664-3010


David Katz, Montana landowner, (406) 328-6476


Rebecca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney at WildEarth Guardians, (406) 698-1489


Derf Johnson, Clean Water Program Director, Montana Environmental Information Center, (406) 581-4634

Today, Montana landowners, farmers, and conservation groups won an important victory to protect local groundwater and the climate when a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consider risks to Montana’s environment and water supply before issuing 287 oil and gas leases covering 145,063 acres in December 2017 and March 2018 lease sales. The court’s decision will protect Montanans, their livelihoods, clean water, public lands, and our climate by reversing the Bureau of Land Management’s recent approval of oil and gas leases across staggering swaths of Montana’s public lands.

BLM’s lease sale would have paved the way for the destructive fracking boom to spread onto 145,063 acres of Montana public lands. Rural landowners and conservation groups, including WildEarth Guardians and Montana Environmental Information Center, banded together to fight BLM’s lease sale because of the agency’s failure to take a hard look at the impacts of fracking on Montana’s water quality, water quantity and our climate. Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represented the parties in federal district court.

“We know from experience what drilling for oil can do to productive farmlands. When a pipeline leaked into the Yellowstone River and they had to truck the oil out of Elk Basin, we did not have a fruit crop that year. The dust from all the oil trucks on the road blanketed our fruit trees and rocked our farm’s finances. We could only imagine what this latest rushed lease sale was going to do to us,” said Bonnie Martinell, who together with her husband Jack, are generational Montana farmers who own and operate a chemical free produce and hay farm just north of Elk Basin oil field. “We’re incredibly grateful that the court sided with the longtime rural landowners, protecting the water in our wells and our community’s future.”

“Oil and gas development comes with a cost — to groundwater, to infrastructure, and to rural economies. We feel this acutely along the Beartooth Front, as increasing temperatures and drought make water for ranching and farming scarce,” said David Katz, a Montana landowner whose family has owned property along the Beartooth Front on the Stillwater River in Stillwater County for 45 years. “The profits from these leases would have been relatively small for oil companies, but the long-term impacts on the Beartooth Front community would have been devastating. Today’s decision from the court marks a good day for us in southern Montana.”

“The oil rush on Montana’s public lands put generational rural landowners at risk of losing clean water and the sustainability of their communities.” said Elizabeth Forsyth, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “The Bureau of Land Management was well aware that current oil and gas drilling practices would not protect sources of drinking water in these Montana communities, but rushed the sale anyway. Justice won in Montana today.”

“The Trump administration’s lust for energy dominance at the expense of people and the environment has, fortunately, hit another brick wall,” said Kyle Tisdel, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “This is another major win for our climate, while protecting almost 150,000 acres of public lands from industry exploitation.”

“It’s heartening to see that, once again, the courts have struck down the Trump administration’s shortsighted rush to frack our public lands to fuel the climate crisis,” said Rebecca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “The science has never been clearer that we need an immediate transition away from dirty fossil fuels, and the federal government should be leading the way, not living in the Dark Ages.”

“Montana’s public lands, waters, and climate were put at risk by an agency looking to cut corners and do the bidding of the fossil fuel industry instead of the public. We’re thankful the court has put the brakes on this reckless behavior but we know this is not the end of the attacks on public resources,” said Derf Johnson, Clean Water Program Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “The Trump administration has not seen a section of public land that it didn’t want to sell to the highest bidder. Montanans must remain vigilant if we want to keep public lands that current and future Montanans can enjoy.”

The 287 oil and gas leases covering 145,063 acres in BLM’s December 2017 and March 2018 lease sales were part of a rush to sacrifice Montana’s public lands to the Trump administration’s energy dominance agenda.

Scientists with the Department of the Interior released an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the production and consumption of fossil fuels from public lands. The report found these emissions, which come from federal coal, as well as offshore and onshore oil and gas, accounted for nearly 25% of all U.S. climate pollution.

State and federal scientists have made it clear in the Montana Climate Assessment and Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, that the costs of climate change to Montana and the U.S. is significant and alarming. The National report called for “immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions” to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

More than 25 million acres of public lands in the U.S. have been leased to the oil and gas industry for development. In Montana, 2.1 million acres are locked up by leases to the oil and gas industry.

A full moon is seen above Mount Baldy in the Big Belt Mountains near Townsend, Montana, April 2019. Nearby land was recently protected by a federal judge ruling; however, the Big Belt Mountains are still at risk.
A full moon is seen above Mount Baldy in the Big Belt Mountains near Townsend, Montana, April 2019. Nearby land was recently protected by a federal judge’s ruling; however, the Big Belt Mountains are still at risk. (John Lambing / Alamy)

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.