HELENA (AP) - Montana voters overwhelmingly support swapping out existing oil and gas leases in the Rocky Mountain Front to protect the area from development, results of a new statewide poll show.
Twenty percent of those questioned said they strongly support the idea of swapping leases in the Front for those held in other, less environmentally sensitive areas. Another 30 percent somewhat support the idea, the poll showed. Nine percent of the voters surveyed strongly oppose the swap, 10 percent somewhat oppose it and 31 percent said they are undecided.
The question was asked of voters by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, which opposes energy development in the area.
The telephone survey of 625 registered Montana voters who said they were likely to vote in the November election was taken May 24-26 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. The question on lease swaps was ''piggybacked'' on a poll conducted by Mason-Dixon for Lee Newspapers of Montana.
Under its arrangement with Lee, Mason-Dixon may sell additional poll questions on the surveys it conducts for Lee, except to political parties. Lee Newspapers doesn't receive results from the piggybacked questions or even know which groups, if any, asked the questions. The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front made the results of the lease swap question public on its own Tuesday.
The Lee poll separately asked voters whether they support or oppose allowing more oil and gas development in the Front. On that question, 52 percent said they supported more oil and gas development there, while 35 percent opposed and 13 percent said they were undecided.
The Bureau of Land Management currently is in the middle of an extensive environmental impact study on the potential effects of StarTech Energy Corp.'s plans to develop leases it has in part of the Front known as the Blackleaf area.
Federal oil and gas leasing has been suspended in the Front since 1997, but the Canadian company's leases predate that moratorium.
Opponents of development in the Front have suggested the BLM consider allowing the company to swap its leases there for others.
Roy Jacobs, an opponent of energy development in the Front, said he found the support for lease swapping encouraging.
Jacobs said he'd like to see either a trade out or a buyout for the leases, adding: ''It will save everyone a lot of hassle.
''To me, a buyout is a guarantee for them,'' he added. ''The EIS is being done now. That is going to cost a lot of money. Then the appeal system. If the BLM goes for the 'let's go' for it drilling, there are several options. Then the lawsuits all start. It could go forever.''