Public Lands are Under Assault by the Trump Administration and the Oil and Gas Industry

October 16, 2017

Tongue River Valley

An overcast day in the Tongue River Valley of Montana.

WildEarth Guardians today challenged President Trump and his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, for proposing to auction off nearly 100,000 acres of public lands in Montana for fracking.

Together with the Montana Environmental Information Center, we filed a protest (i.e., an administrative appeal) with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management calling on the agency to abandon its plans for fracking.  Among the lands being targeted by the oil and gas industry are more than 17,000 acres in the Tongue River Valley of southeastern Montana.

While the Tongue River Valley has seen its share of fossil fuel destruction from coal mining and coal-bed methane natural gas drilling, it still remains mostly untouched by the landscape-scale industry oil and gas development that comes with fracking.

Unfortunately, these latest plans to auction away public lands portend disaster for this iconic area. Thousands of acres are located right next to the Tongue River and the Tongue River Reservoir. Click here to see a full interactive map of the public lands slated to be auctioned off in December.



Public lands slated to be sold for fracking in the Tongue River Valley of southeastern Montana. Click on the map to see more.

As we’ve confirmed for ourselves, the fracking boom is right on the doorstep of southern Montana. Last month, we saw firsthand a new fracking well and flaring operation in the area just south of Otter Road (which extends due east from Decker, Montana).

After some sleuthing, we discovered this was an oil well called the Slaughterville 1H owned by Alta Vista Oil Corporation. That’s not all we discovered.

Apparently, while the Bureau of Land Management approved the well back in November 2016, the agency is in the process of approving many more drilling and fracking permits. As we learned, Alta Vista just got approval to drill two more wells directly above and below the existing well and is reportedly seeking approval for dozens more.

MT Oil Well Flaring Pic

Tanks and a flare from at the Slaughterville 1H oil well in southeastern Montana’s Tongue River Valley.

The kind of development that Alta Vista and likely other companies are eyeing is the most intensive and destructive form of oil and gas development. They’re seeking to tap the Thermopolis shale formation, which requires drilling to a depth of more than 8,000 feet, and then drilling horizontally for another mile or more, ultimately achieving a depth of more than 12,000 feet. Here’s an explanation from the Bureau of Land Management’s own environmental review:

alta vista excerpt
This kind of development has never happened here before, yet with the Bureau of Land Management’s latest plans, it seems that a fracking boom may be on the doorstep of the Tongue River Valley.

There is no doubt that horizontal drilling and fracking will devastate this beautiful area.  Fracking occurs when an oil and gas company pumps millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and proppant (usually sand) into the well at high pressure. This mixture travels down the well into the target formation and enters small fractures in the rock — propping them open in order for the oil or gas to escape. Horizontal drilling of shale, which is a relatively new technology, allows companies to maximize access to the formation and actually makes drilling for shale economic.

This can have huge, irreversible consequences for our public lands, clean air and water, and for our climate. Fracking means thousands of semis tearing up rural roads and kicking up dust, massive increases in air pollution and greenhouse gases, and large scale water use for fracking. There are also concerns about water contamination from frack fluids, earthquakes from waste water disposal, and the social impacts on communities that result from an influx of new people.
Needless to say, fracking in the Tongue River Valley would irreversibly change the area.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, fracking isn’t about small-scale development, it transforms landscapes. We’ve seen this in western North Dakota, Colorado’s North Park, the Pawnee National Grassland in northeast Colorado, the Greater Chaco region of New Mexico, the Uinta Basin of northeast Utah, and many more places.


The Uinta Basin of northeast Utah overrun with oil and gas development.

That’s why we’re kicking our engagement on this issue into high gear. Not only did we file today’s protest, but we’re stepping up to confront drilling and fracking proposals in the Tongue River Valley and surrounding areas.

What’s more, we’re gearing up to confront the Bureau of Land Management’s plans to auction off 63,000 more acres of public lands in Montana in March 2018. Many of these lands lie along the Beartooth Front southwest of Billings, a vast expanse of wild lands where fracking has touched off controversy in the past.


Beartooth Lake in the Beartooth Mountains. 

Unbelievably, as part of this proposal, the Bureau of Land Management even wants to auction off lands right along the Yellowstone River and right next to the town of Livingston. Click here to see a full map of public lands slated for the auction block in March 2018.

livingston leasing

Lands next to Livingston, Montana that the Bureau of Land Management wants to auction off for fracking in March 2018.

If you don’t know Livingston, here it is. It’s a small, picturesque town at the tail end of Montana’s Paradise Valley, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park’s northern end. To envision this region overrun by fracking is heart-wrenching.2012-livingston-looking-down-from-hill-xl
With the Trump Administration, it seems like every week a new western landscape is under attack. Still, we’re fighting back and we still have a chance to turn back the tide fracking. Whether it’s the Tongue River Valley, Montana’s Beartooth Front, or other vital western lands, our aim is to keep them frack-free.  Our public lands are too special to lose to the greed of Trump, Zinke, and the oil and gas industry.


Montana’s Tongue River Valley, photo by Ecoflight.

About the Author

Rebecca Fischer | Climate Guardian, WildEarth Guardians

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