Zinke defers oil and gas leases near Livingston, Yellowstone River

The proposed leases included acreage at the base of Livingston Peak, the iconic backdrop to downtown Livingston. (Courtesy photo)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday deferred proposed oil and gas exploration on 17,300 acres near Livingston and in the foothills of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountains.

Opposed by area land and business owners and statewide conservation groups, the proposed leases included 26 parcels of Bureau of Land Management ground, including several along the Yellowstone River and beneath Livingston Peak.

The exploratory leases were scheduled for a competitive online auction next week.

“Multiple use is about balance. I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not,” said Zinke said in a written statement announcing the deferment. “This area certainly deserves more study, and appropriately we have decided to defer [these parcels].”

Another 83 parcels covering nearly 46,200 acres in central Montana – stretching from the Canadian border to Wyoming – still will be offered for lease. Information on the parcels, including details on how to register in advance as a bidder, is online at EnergyNet.com.

The Park County Environmental Council led much of the charge against the leases, beginning in mid-January and continuing through Monday morning, when it sent yet another missive to Zinke and state BLM officials.

“These leases could open the door for the oil and gas industry to frack and drill on the edge of our community,” said the council’s Michelle Uberuaga. “Oil and gas development in this area could have significant impacts to the Yellowstone River, our public health and the community. This is clearly not the best or highest use of our public resources.”

The leases not only included areas just south of the Yellowstone River, but others on the boundary of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

“This lease everything, everywhere approach shows that Interior’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda means a direct assault on cherished Montana landscapes and recreational assets,” said Peter Aengst, the Wilderness Society’s regional director, said after environmental groups learned of the proposal earlier this year.

Area business and property owners also joined the protest, with some opposing what they feared would turn Livingston into a “mini-Williston,” a reference to the North Dakota oil and gas boom town.

Tourism and agriculture are the two biggest economic drivers in Park County’s economy, and public lands play a vital role in supporting both sectors, opponents said.

“Secretary (Ryan) Zinke understands the importance of public lands to Park County residents, and we urge him to take the same approach he has taken with the gold mines in Paradise Valley,” said Dan Vermillion of Sweetwater Travel. “We urge him to cancel these leases.”

While Zinke did not cancel the leases Monday, BLM officials did say they will review the existing Resource Management Plans for the Butte Field Office and Billings Field Office, evaluating the protection they provide for parcels made available for oil and gas leasing.

“This evaluation will inform whether the protection measures need to be updated, modified or changed for the unique local conditions,” the BLM said in a news release.

“We help put people to work, contribute to local economies, and help make America safe through energy independence by providing for responsible oil and gas development,” said Jon Raby, acting state director for the BLM’s Montana/Dakotas State Office, said in a written statement. “We’re also good neighbors. When federal, state and local residents and elected officials expressed specific concerns, we listened.”

The BLM awards oil and gas leases for a period of 10 years, and for as long thereafter as there is production in paying quantities. The revenue from the sale of federal leases, as well as the 12.5 percent royalties collected from the production of those leases, is shared between the federal government and the states.