Associated Press: ConocoPhillips retires leases next to Glacier park

HELENA, Mont. — ConocoPhillips is relinquishing its interest in oil and gas leases on 169,000 acres next to Glacier National Park, saying Wednesday that a yearslong court-ordered suspension had brought any chance of developing the land to a standstill.

The Houston-based oil giant has owned the leases in the Flathead River’s North Fork watershed since 1982, ConocoPhillips spokesman Charlie Rowton said. But a mid-1980s court ruling found the Bureau of Land Management’s leases had not been properly issued and suspended surface drilling in the area.

The company believes it could have developed the leases in an environmentally responsible manner, but it agreed when Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester recently asked ConocoPhillips to voluntarily retire the leases, Rowton said.

The company will not be compensated, he said.

“They asked, we had the leases we hadn’t been able to move forward with, and we agreed to their request,” he said of the Montana Democrats.

The land is in a prime recreation area next to one of Montana’s top attractions, Glacier National Park. Tourism statistics show that more than 2 million visitors spend more than $150 million annually in the region.

Retiring those oil and gas leases will help protect the Flathead area conclusively, Baucus said in a statement.

ConocoPhillips fully owns 50 leases covering some 94,000 acres west of Glacier National Park, and is the partial owner of an additional 58 leases covering another 75,000 acres. Those 108 leases make up some 71 percent of the leased land in the Flathead watershed, according to Baucus’ office.

Baucus and Tester are talking to other energy companies and leaseholders to persuade them to follow ConocoPhillips’ lead in relinquishing their leases. It was not immediately clear how many additional leaseholders there are, Baucus spokesman Tyler Matsdorf said.

There’s been no drilling on any of the leases. Because of the 1980s court ruling, no development is allowed until an environmental impact study is conducted, and no leaseholder has tried to have one done, Matsdorf said.

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