GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CN) - The federal government has fast-tracked approval of a dramatic escalation of mining and drilling activity on 6.6 million acres of virgin land in Montana and Wyoming, conservationists claim in court.
In a complaint filed Tuesday in the Great Falls, Mont. Federal Court, the Western Organization of Resource Councils and others claim the Bureau of Land Management failed to exercise appropriate due diligence before approving resource management plans allowing for 18,000 new oil and gas well in the two states, as well as the mining of more than 100 billion tons of coal. The plaintiffs claim by doing so that agency failed to adequately consider the affects of fossil fuel production on the environment.
"Together, the contiguous Miles City and Buffalo planning areas compose the northern and southern portions of a broader region known as the Powder River Basin, an area of stark beauty with rolling grasslands, badlands, abundant wildlife and remote wilderness," according to a 45-page complaint.
The area, however, is also one of the nation's most prolific energy producing regions, the Powder River Basin accounting for almost 40 percent of all domestic coal production, and 1 to 1.3 percent of natural gas and oil production in the U.S.
The Bureau of Land Management's Miles City planning area in eastern Montana consists of 13 counties spread over almost 26 million acres of federal, state and private lands.
Over 2.7 million acres are federal surface acres and 10.6 million are federal mineral acres.
Wyoming's Buffalo planning area covers about 7.4 million acres of federal, state and private lands. Of that total, 780,000 are federal surface acres and 4.8 million are federal mineral acres.
Approval of the Miles City plan opens the door for companies to sign federal leases for more than 1.5 million acres of land containing about 71 billion tons of coal and 6.6 million acres of land where some 7,000 are to be drilled, the complaint says.
Under the Buffalo plan, coal leases will be available for over 500,000 acres where approximately 10.2 billion tons of coal will be mined, and another 3.3 million acres where more than 11,000 gas and oil wells will be drilled.
The time horizon for both resource management plans is 20 years, the complaint says.
The plaintiffs claim the agency neglected its duty to achieve a balance between public use of the land and its minerals by approving resource management plans for the Miles City and Buffalo planning areas through a "single Record of Decision," and that it failed to take a "hard look" at the potential environmental consequences, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The plaintiffs say that the bureau should have studied available alternatives such as narrowing the scope of coal development, methods of reducing methane and other emissions, and the long-term effects on land use, population density and growth, and a wide range of environmental factors.
In 2009, President Barack Obama announced federal goals of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but the Western Organization of Resource Councils says the bureau, a federal agency, is not following that directive.
"To us, it is out of step with the government's climate plan," said plaintiff attorney Laura King of the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, Mont.
She added: "This is a NEPA claim, so we are saying the BLM's environmental impact statement did not adequately consider the affects of all this energy development on the climate and the surrounding area."
In addition to the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the plaintiffs include Montana Environmental Information Center, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The defendants are the Bureau of Land Management, agency director Neil Kornze, Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, and Janice Schneider, assistant secretary of land and minerals management.
The plaintiffs want the court to enjoin the defendants from approving the leasing or development of coal, oil or gas "until federal defendants have demonstrated compliance with NEPA and APA (Administrative Procedures Act.)"
They also seek payment of their court costs and attorneys' fees.
In addition to Laura King, the plaintiffs are represented by Shilo Hernandez, also of the Western Environmental Law Center, in Helena, Mont.; Kyle Tisdale of the Western Environmental Law Center, in Taos, N.M.; Nathaniel Shoaff of the Sierra Club, in San Francisco; and Sharon Buccino and Alison Kelly of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington, D.C.
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