Feds, groups reach tentative deal over oil lease emissions

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

Environmental groups and the U.S. government reached a tentative agreement to end a dispute over greenhouse gas emissions from federal oil and gas leases in Montana.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Environmental groups and the U.S. government reached a tentative agreement to end a dispute over greenhouse gas emissions from federal oil and gas leases in Montana.

Attorneys for the Department of Justice and the environmentalists filed notice in federal court Friday that they have a settlement in principle over a lawsuit that pushes the government to examine the effects on climate change when leasing public lands for energy drilling. They hope to finalize the deal within the month.

The groups say the government should require companies to use technology that would reduce climate-changing methane emissions as a condition of their leases. Better oversight and technology use could cut 40 percent of the methane now lost due to leaking pipes, venting excess gas and exhaust from drilling, processing and transporting the oil and gas, according to the Montana Environmental Information Center, WildEarth Guardians and Earthworks' Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

Justice Department attorneys argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the groups had not shown evidence that greenhouse gasemissions from federal lease sales caused them harm.

The environmental groups entered into settlement negotiations with government attorneys after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year reversed a ruling that dismissed the case. U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon had ruled that future drilling emissions would be too small to make a significant contribution to global greenhouse gas levels.

The 9th Circuit panel of judges brought the case back, saying Haddon should not have focused only on the effects to climate change in his ruling but on harm to the surface where the drilling would happen.

The sides have been in settlement talks since January. Montana Environmental Information Center attorney Shiloh Hernandez declined to release any details of the agreement until it is finished.

"We're working out the details now," Hernandez said. "We hope to have it finalized in the next month."

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the lead defendant in the case, did not have immediate comment.

The Montana center first sued the government after a 2008 sale of 61 oil and gas leases. The sides settled that case, with the government agreeing to suspend the leases while officials conducted further environmental review.

The environmental groups sued again when 45 of those leases and new leases were issued in a 2010 sale.

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