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Montana's Long Awaited Powder River CBM Plan Approved

Following years of legal wrangling, coalbed methane (CBM) development in Montana's Powder River Basin may be a go. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week issued a carefully worded Record of Decision (ROD) to permit more than 18,000 natural gas wells to be drilled in the basin over the next 20 years.

Around 20,000 CBM wells in the past decade already have been drilled on the Wyoming side of the Powder River Basin. However, BLM's efforts to prepare an approved resource management plan (RMP) for Montana have been held up in the courts.

The 101-page ROD contains BLM's final RMP for Montana lands that stretch across the Powder River and Billings, MT, regions. The ROD details how oil and gas development may be permitted on more than 1.5 million acres of federal land. However, the ROD makes clear that development projects could be modified "based on monitoring, relevant science, as well as suggestions" from state and federal agencies, which include fish and wildlife agencies.

"We've worked long and hard with our cooperators, partners and a number of interest groups to develop a plan that embraces adaptive management practices for coalbed natural gas development in the Montana Powder River Basin," said Elaine Raper, manager for the BLM Miles City, MT, field office. "The signing of the Record of Decision is an important step forward for implementation."

The ROD has been a long time coming. In 2002 BLM, together with the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) that analyzed CBM development in the basin. The DEIS was immediately challenged in the courts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Northern Plains Resource Council.

BLM responded, issuing a final EIS in 2003 that incorporated a phased development plan for CBM (see NGI, May 5, 2003). Again BLM's plans were challenged in the courts. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe argued that BLM had not properly consulted with it about the impact of CBM development. However, a district court concluded that the final EIS "passed muster" and was generally sufficient under the National Environmental Protection Act. The district court found that the final EIS improperly considered the "phased development" alternative, but it partially enjoined BLM's CBM development plan.

The district court's ruling prohibited CBM development on 93% of the RMP area until BLM completed a supplemental EIS (SEIS), and it allowed development of 7% of the area with a site-specific analysis (see NGI, Aug. 15, 2005).

Lawsuits opposing BLM's plan continued, but in 2007 the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a split decision rejected a request to expand an injunction to prevent CBM development (see NGI, Sept. 17, 2007).

The ROD, which includes the final SEIS, addresses management of CBM development on BLM-administered lands and minerals in Powder River, Carter, Treasure, Big Horn, Custer, Rosebud, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was consulted about the final SEIS, but the governor's review "did not result in substantive changes to the plan amendment," said Gene R. Terland, BLM's state director for Montana and the Dakotas.

BLM considered eight management alternatives, and under the chosen Alternative H, producers would be allowed to drill in a way that would "reduce the overall cumulative impacts of any resource by managing the pace and place as well as the density and intensity" of federal CBM development. Four evaluation screens for water, wildlife, Native American concerns and air would be used when applications to drill are reviewed "to identify impacts, develop mitigation measures and guide the decision-making process." Thresholds could be adjusted when monitoring data justifies a change, BLM noted.

"While the ROD supports the development of oil and gas resources, it also includes the application of mitigation measures to minimize or avoid impacts to resources or land uses from oil and gas activities and to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation," BLM noted. Besides the mitigation measures, existing lease stipulations could be used to protect critical resource values.

"If our monitoring shows we're getting into impacts that aren't acceptable, we're going to start making changes right now," said BLM spokesman Greg Albright. "We're not going to wait until we reach some number of wells."

The ROD and related documents are available at www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/miles_city_field_office.html.

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