XTO Energy releases more North Fork oil, gas leases


by Rob Chaney

Another 11 oil and gas exploration leases along the west side of Glacier National Park have been voluntarily released, according to Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

XTO Energy has decided not to pursue its development options on about 21,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead River. That means nearly 79 percent of the area's oil and gas leases, totaling more than 200,000 acres, have been taken off the table. XTO Energy is a subsidiary of ExxonMobile Corp.

"Oil and gas drilling can be done in a sensitive way that protects the environment," said Jack Williams, president of XTO in a written statement. "What we're doing today by surrendering these leases is enabling the conservation of this special area for generations to come who enjoy our outdoor heritage."

ConocoPhillips voluntarily released 108 leases on 169,000 acres of the same region in April. Chevron Oil relinquished another 11,121 acres in June, and two other ConocoPhillips subsidiaries let go of about 75,000 acres in July.

"Permanently protecting the North Fork for our kids and grandkids has been one of my biggest priorities over the years," Baucus said in the same release. "This is another great step in the right direction. I'm thrilled that Exxon has become the latest company to step up to the plate and protect the future of this special place, so future generations can camp, hike, hunt and fish there like we do."

Baucus and Tester also pushed the North Fork Watershed Protection Act legislation to block future oil and gas leases in the northern Flathead drainage.

The bill, awaiting action by the full Senate, would further a U.S.-Canada agreement to curtail coal, petroleum and mineral mining along the Flathead River on both sides of the international border. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell finalized an agreement in January to preserve the area, which was under serious pressure from Canadian energy and gold-mining firms.

None of the energy leases on the American side of the border have been developed. Baucus helped start the campaign to protect the area when he proposed designating the Flathead as a national Wild and Scenic River in 1975.

"As word gets out about Montana's efforts to keep this region the way it was meant to be, more companies are agreeing to do the right thing, all at no cost to American taxpayers," Tester said. "We've got a good team fighting for the future of the North Fork and working together, we're picking up momentum along the way."