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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Mar 11 2021

We Must Modernize Our Oil and Gas Leasing System

A suite of bills introduced this week in Congress will help us get there

It’s been 101 years since Congress first began regulating oil and gas leasing on public lands. Since then, oil and gas CEOs have abused the leasing system to boost their profits at a heavy cost to American taxpayers and to our air and water. This system has also undermined public participation, leaving public land decisions in the hands of special interests. This outdated decades-old system threatens the public lands and waters where we hunt, fish, camp, and hike.

Seizing on the opportunity created by President Biden’s executive pause on new oil and gas leasing, members of Congress have introduced a sweeping suite of bills to finally fix the grossly outdated federal oil and gas leasing system.

On March 4, Sen. Cathrine Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced a bill to end speculative oil and gas leasing. This practice allows speculators, interested only in boosting their financial portfolios, to scoop up leases on public lands for as little as $2 an acre, leases that have little, if any potential for oil and gas production. The practice is so egregious that even industry insider Kathleen Sgamma expressed frustration at it, calling out “bad actors who keep nominating way more acreage than there’s industry interest in.”   


48% of all leases issued in Montana since 1987, covering more than one million acres, have been sold for $2 an acre or less.


Forty-eight percent of all leases issued in Montana since 1987, covering more than one million acres, have been sold for $2 an acre or less. These leases have resulted in hardly any oil or gas production, little revenue, few jobs, and little benefit to anyone except the speculators buying these leases on the cheap. That’s why we applaud Cortez Masto’s bill, which will put an end to this practice hindering wildlife conservation, undermining water quality, and inhibiting Montana’s ability to see greater returns on its outdoor recreation economy.

By locking up public lands for oil and gas that almost never materializes, this practice is standing in the way of Montana’s communities being able to benefit more from clean energy development and from hunting, fishing, hiking, and other forms of outdoor recreation thatt public lands enable.

Proving that reforming our oil and gas leasing system is a bipartisan concern, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) are co-sponsoring a bill to update our woefully antiquated leasing fiscal policies. This commonsense bill brings the prices private companies pay more in line with their value. It updates minimum bid rates, yearly rental rates, and royalty rates, something Congress hasn’t done since 1987. This good governance bill will ensure private companies pay their fair share when developing our public resources. 

Sen. Daines is a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which will hold important hearings on these bills. Please let him know that you expect him to support these commonsense bills that will help safeguard Montana’s public lands and outdoor way of life while protecting us taxpayers from corporate greed and abuse. 

Over in the House of Representatives, bills from Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA-45),  Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47), Mike Levin (D-CA-49), and Diana DeGette (D-CO-1) represent critical steps forward that will also safeguard air and water quality and protect taxpayers from government waste while ensuring transparency and robust public participation in decision-making processes regarding our public lands.

Altogether, these bills would: 
  • increase the minimum bid on leases and increase rental and royalty rates, which hasn’t been done since the 1980s. 
  • increase and strengthen the bonding requirements to ensure companies clean up their messes. 
  • end methane waste from venting and flaring. 
  • end noncompetitive leasing, which allows companies to buy up leases off the shelf for $1.50 an acre. 
  • increase public participation and transparency in the leasing process. 

These bills reflect the desires of the majority of Montanans. In a recent bipartisan poll from Colorado College, 59% of Montanans indicated that they support strictly limiting oil and gas development on public land. What’s more, 64% of Montanans stated that they support managing our public lands for conservation and recreation, not maximizing the amount of land available for oil and gas leasing. Montanans from all walks of life believe our public lands should not be used and abused by private companies at everyone else’s expense.  

Montana’s only voice in the House, Rep. Rosendale, sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, which held hearings on all five bills on March 9. Please send Rosendale a message, asking that he support these five crucial bills to make sure our federal oil and gas leasing system works for Montanans and our public lands. 

Email Rep. Rosendale Today

And don’t forget to send Sen. Daines a message as well, asking him to support the Senate bills that will help bring the oil and gas leasing system into the 21st century. 

Email Sen. Daines Today

What to do more? Amplify the impact of your message to Congress by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. Contact me, and I’ll send you a sample letter and talking points. I’ll help you write your letter and even submit it for publication. 

Aubrey Bertram
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.
Email Aubrey