AP announced today that Houston-based oil and gas giant Conoco Phillips is retiring it’s oil and gas leases in the North Fork Flathead to the tune of about 169,000 acres. The energy company owned around 71% of the leases in the North Fork. Not that this isn’t really good news for the Crown of the Continent, but just how much chance was there that those leases would ever bear fruit, or oil, or gas? The leases were issued under the Reagan Administration and James Watt in 1982 with no environmental review. In 1988, a federal judge put a hold on that decision claiming it was improper. An environmental impact statement was never prepared. Last month, Governor Schweitzer also jumped into the fray asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to cancel all energy leases in the North Fork. The leases were worth much more in goodwill than they would ever be in resources.
Today, during a hearing on Baucus and Tester’s North Fork Watershed Protection Act of 2010, the announcement was made that both senators had been instrumental in convincing the oil giant to relinquish the leases. Their new bill would ban any new energy and mining leases in the North Fork. It does not affect existing leases however. Both senators were quick to claim credit for big coup. Senator Baucus proclaiming today:
“Conoco Phillips should be commended for this decision and their stewardship of this very unique, special place. Today, we are one step closer to ensuring that every Montanan, every American, and every Canadian who follows us will survey the North Fork and share our feeling of awestruck wonder that such a place still exists.”
You can’t buy publicity like that at any price. Hopefully, BP will have some leases it can give up to tout their “stewardship” after what they have done to the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, our senators are to be commended for the work they are doing to protect this precious place. Baucus and Tester announced that they are talking to other lease owners. Now is the time to strike while the iron is hot and the leases are not totally without PR value.