White House Backs Down on Montana Drilling Debate

For now, environmentalists have declared victory in a campaign to prevent natural gas drilling along a hotly contested 100-mile stretch of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front south of Glacier National Park. Last week, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) suspended work on an environmental impact study for the Front’s Blackleaf region, where a Canadian company has applied for a gas-drilling lease.

The Rocky Mountain Front is known for its wide array of wildlife—including grizzly bear, elk and bighorn sheep—as well as for its natural beauty. But meanwhile, the Bush administration has singled out the region as one of the country’s most promising domestic sources of natural gas—despite a 1997 moratorium on drilling there.

The issue came to a head recently when Canadian firm StarTech Energy announced plans to begin drilling at Blackleaf based on a lease that predated the 1997 moratorium. BLM, which administers the area for the federal government, quickly got to work on an environmental impact study (EIS) to generate recommendations regarding how to drill most responsibly.

But last week’s unexpected decision to cancel the EIS—which effectively acknowledges the outstanding wildlife and natural values of the land—comes as a pleasant surprise to environmentalists who had been outraged that the Bush administration was allowing drilling plans to move forward there. The conservation community in the region is now hard at work drafting legislation that would provide Congress with the means of granting permanent protection from development and resource extraction in the Front.

Sources: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=domesticNews&storyID=6422008 and http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6173112/