Forest Service Plans to Increase Drilling on National Forests
A new rule would open the door for oil and gas development on 17 million acres across Montana
While Americans struggle with the uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the current administration continues to try to capitalize on this crisis by dramatically increasing oil and gas drilling on public lands, weakening environmental regulation, and slashing public input.
The most recent attempt to advance its “energy dominance” agenda is a new rule, proposed by the United States Forest Service, to escalate oil and gas drilling across our national forests, which comprise almost 17 million acres across Montana and nearly 190 million acres across the United States.
Currently, the Forest Service has to “affirmatively consent” to any new oil and gas leases on national forest land, a process that requires explicit permission and a lengthy environmental review process any new lease can be issued. The new rule will flip this process on its head, instead requiring the Forest Service to “affirmatively not consent” to any new leasing.
This effectively creates a situation in which Forest Service lands are open to extractive industry unless the Forest Service expressly decides not to grant new leases. The proposed rule would also eliminate environmental considerations as criteria to approve plans, limiting the Forest Service’s ability to address wildlands protection and climate change.
By adopting this dramatic departure from its longstanding role, the Forest Service plans to give away its right to serve as a check on leasing for those places that need protection. It would give excessive leeway to companies that don’t follow Forest Service laws and weaken the agency’s ability to protect public land from development and degradation.
The rule will hinder rather than help the climate and extinction crises. More oil and gas leasing will drive more habitat loss, more climate pollution, and worsening fires, droughts, and heatwaves. It will lead to the development of public lands that Americans have depended on to support our outdoor recreation, economy, and health for generations.
It’s bad public policy, and bad news for America’s national forest system.
And it gets worse. While the Forest Service controls everything above ground on national forest lands, the Bureau of Land Management (which is overseen by the Department of the Interior) manages the federal mineral estate - oil, gas, and everything else under the surface. And while the proposed rule allows the Forest Service to affirmatively not consent to new leases, that may not matter, because the final decision to lease federal lands to oil and gas drilling will ultimately rest with the Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. And Bernhardt is a former oil and gas industry lobbyist who has a history of attacking public lands and pulling out all the stops to enrich his cronies in extractive industries.
The proposed rule is one more step in this administration’s campaign to cut the public out of public lands decision making by removing public notice requirements and allowing the Forest Service to skip other review processes. This proposed rule comes in the wake of an executive order and watered-down regulations from the Council on Environmental Quality eviscerating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). A bedrock environmental law for 50 years, NEPA serves as a sort of Bill of Rights for environmental protection by requiring a transparent and careful assessment of potential environmental harms caused by projects that the federal government funds or permits, like oil and gas development.
By undermining the public participation and environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, this administration is putting the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of public interest.
The proposed rule also comes at a time when people are focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, demonstrating this administration’s commitment to sneaking in dangerous rule changes while many citizens may not be comfortably able to weigh in.
Montana’s national forests support large swaths of intact habitat for iconic species, clean free-flowing rivers, opportunities for all kinds of recreation, and the backbone of our $7 billion outdoor recreation economy. They are the foundation of our outdoor way of life.
We have until November 2nd to raise our voices against this attack on our national forests and public processes. Make a comment to the Forest Service here and then call your senator to demand legislative oil and gas leasing reform to fix the loopholes this administration is widening.
Eastern Montana Field Director
Aubrey works with communities to protect eastern Montana’s prairies, badlands, and island mountain ranges. She spends her time skiing, hiking, and running, volunteering with civic organizations in Billings, exploring public lands with her two dogs, and napping on the couch with her two cats.