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Molloy made headlines again in March for approving an unprecedented settlement between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and three environmental groups, including the Montana Environmental Information Center. The settlement suspended 38,000 acres of oil and gas leases across Montana and required the agency to review how oil field activities contribute to climate change.
"It's important," explains Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who worked on the case, "because we're not talking about the combustion side at the end of the line, we're talking about when you take it out of the ground. What are the greenhouse gas emissions when that happens?"
The settlement seems to have already changed agency policy. Two weeks ago BLM delayed another 91,000 acres of leases in Montana and the Dakotas "to bring more certainty to industry and in light of expected litigation."
"Since we agreed to conduct additional environmental reviews on the 2008 leases, it only makes sense to complete additional environmental reviews before we offer new acreage for leasing," said Gene Terland, BLM's Montana state director, in a statement.
Adds Mary Apple, spokeswoman for the BLM Montana office: "Probably everything between now and then will have its own separate environmental analysis."
Apple says the agency's new in-the-works land-use plans will consider how its oil field leases contribute to climate change. And BLM spokesman Matt Spangler says the agency's Washington office "is working on policy to address the recent environmental issues raised in Montana."
Schlenker-Goodrich says the settlement isn't legal precedent, "but, in a broader policy sense, yes, it is precedent-setting," he says.
In the absence of binding federal or international law, Molloy's considerations of climate change give Western environmental groups hope that the few legal tools at their disposal to fight the problem can have a lasting impact.
Give no ground
Rising Tide finds results from "direct action" campaign
The five students figured they'd be arrested. After all, the odds of the Montana Land Board reversing its stance on leasing 570 million tons of Otter Creek coal because of a handful of Missoula protesters were slim to none. But the five young members of Northern Rockies Rising Tide (NRRT) held the floor—literally—for 45 minutes on March 18, refusing to budge.
And as they predicted, it took the officers of the Helena Police Department to bring their stand to an end.
NRRT co-founder Nick Stocks considers the sit-in a complete success. Sure, the Land Board approved the deal with St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. shortly after his cohorts were led out in handcuffs. Changing that outcome wasn't exactly the point. There were larger stakes that day, Stocks says, for both the grassroots group and for Otter Creek.
"The leasing of the coal necessitated some kind of punctuation," says Stocks, 26, who was present at the meeting but did not participate in the sit-in. "It wasn't getting a whole lot of national attention, but because of the action, because of the way the wider world relates to direct action, it was a successful move in that moment to expand the argument. Now everyone knows about Otter Creek."
What people remain less familiar with is NRRT itself. The group formed last fall and still counts only a dozen members among its ranks. It's one of the newest chapters in the global Rising Tide network, a loose and noncentralized collection of activists that has for years stood on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. The Rising Tide mission is simple: Refuse to compromise, give no ground, and take the consequences as they come.
"I think the type of organization that Northern Rockies is has a lot to offer," Stocks says. "The grassroots, far left has the ability to, when you take action along that front, put a lot more things on the table. It allows for much broader political debate."
Stocks and his fellow activists realize they aren't the first to cross the line of political correctness and openly challenge the accepted course of debate in Montana. In fact, they thrive on the examples set by environmental radicals like Mike Roselle (see below), and have found the Missoula community surprisingly receptive to their efforts.
"It never really went away," Stocks says of the direct action movement popular during the timber wars of the 1980s and '90s. "It just shifted its focus a bit. Climate change...this has become the path along which we're organizing, and a new vein of direct action needs to be here."
Otter Creek proved fertile ground for the creation of NRRT and gave the group its first opportunity to draw a line in Montana's soil. But five misdemeanors for disorderly conduct only marked the beginning. NRRT sees itself as filling a troubling void in Montana's mineral extraction and climate change debate.
"There has been a lot of work done in Montana, in the Northern Rockies, around wilderness issues and around mineral extraction, but there have been no direct action elements to that battle," says Max Granger, 23, a University of Montana student and one of the NRRT members arrested in Helena March 18. "So I guess we're trying to build that backing a little bit."
Members like Granger are now preparing to up the ante. Last December, Imperial Oil announced plans to ship oil rig equipment through Montana to its Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta, Canada. Upwards of 300 trucks will pass through Missoula before heading up the east side of the Continental Divide to the border. Once assembled, the rigs will extract 300,000 barrels of oil a day for Imperial, whose majority shareholder is ExxonMobil.
"We're trying to get a campaign going to stop these shipments that are going to the tar sands mining," says Michael Phelps, 29, who was also arrested during the Helena sit-in. "Basically it's the first time in the United States that activists have been able to take a stand on putting a wrench in the tar sands mining operations, because for the most part we just consume the oil."
"It means that we get to address it," Phelps adds, "rather than hope somebody somewhere else does."
Many in NRRT's ranks have deeply personal motivations for joining the fight against climate change. Brent Rowley, 28, grew up in a West Virginia coalmining town, witnessing first hand the devastation inflicted on the environment by mineral extraction. Suzie Rosette, 29, has gained a solid background in environmental activism from back east. Phelps vowed years ago to dedicate himself to protecting whatever place he wound up calling home. That place turned out to be Missoula and, by extension, Montana.