BP plc has agreed to not pursue further oil and gas development on leases it owns near Montana's North Fork of the Flathead River, including one property located at the entrance of the Glacier National Park, said Montana's Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

BP is the latest in a series of energy producers with whom the two senators have brokered deals to voluntarily retire leases in the watershed. They said interest in more than 200,000 acres, about 80% of the total leased acreage, has been relinquished so far at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Baucus and Tester finalized an agreement with BP Friday to relinquish its interest in three leases, totaling about 1,853 acres, in northwestern Montana. Among BP's leases is 394 acres at the entrance to Glacier National Park.

"This is another right decision to keep this corner of Montana the way it was meant to be without costing taxpayers one penny. Over the past year we've come a long way in making sure this landscape remains one of the world's most famous outdoor places prized for its wildlife, fish and clean water," Tester said.

"BP believes that relinquishing these acres back to the government is the right thing to do...In addition, these leases have long been subject to development restrictions and are not strategic to BP's North America gas business," BP spokesman Daren Beaudo told the Missoulian newspaper.

In January five other producers -- ConocoPhillips, Anadarko, Chevron, XTO Energy and Allen and Kirmse Ltd. -- agreed to relinquish close to 30,000 acres of natural gas and oil leases along the North Fork of the Flathead (see Daily GPI, Jan. 19). By relinquishing the leases, Montana has been able to keep its part of an agreement with British Columbia to forego Flathead energy exploration and mining on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, according to the newspaper.

In March Baucus and Tester introduced the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which would prevent new oil and gas development and mining on the U.S. side of the North Fork watershed. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill in August and forwarded it to the Senate, where it is awaiting floor action. It is not expected to have a vote during the lame duck session.

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