MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
Legislation moving through Congress this week would place a permanent ban on gas, oil and mineral exploration along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., added the language to a tax bill that members of Congress are hoping to pass before adjourning for the year. The drilling provision would make permanent a 1997 moratorium on drilling on the front and make it easier to retire existing leases. “I’m hopeful we can get it done,” Baucus said. “The Rocky Mountain Front is just too important to hunting, fishing, and recreation.” Drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front has been the subject of passionate debate for years. Running for about 100 miles in a part of west-central Montana where the mountains rise dramatically from the plains, the Front is home to an array of wildlife and known for its solitude. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, Montana’s only member of the House, immediately spoke out in opposition to the provision, calling it “politics at its worst” because the provision was added at the last minute. “At a time when America is struggling to meet its energy needs and Americans are demanding that more of our energy supply be produced in this country, to summarily shut off a potential source of Montana-made energy forever is just foolhardy,” said Rehberg, who has long opposed the drilling ban. The House is expected to pass the larger tax bill, but it may face opposition in the Senate, where some conservatives have complained about its cost. Majority Leader Bill Frist, Rtenn., said in a statement Thursday that the bill could face obstacles. If the ban does not pass this week, it could pass next year in a separate Senate bill. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns added a similar provision to an Interior Department spending bill that the new Democratic Congress will consider next year. But that legislation could face obstacles as well, as Burns lost his November re-election bid to Democrat Jon Tester and will no longer be the bill’s sponsor. The ban moving this week would give oil and gas companies a tax break if they sell their leases to nonprofit groups. That break would be equal to 25 percent of the capital received by the seller. According to Baucus’s office, that would apply to 60 current leases on the front. Gene Sentz, a retired teacher from Choteau who works as a mule packer taking trips into the front, called the development “huge.” “This is one of the finest places on the continent for hunting, hiking, horseback riding and other outdoor activities,” he said. Two energy firms agreed earlier this year to sell and donate the mineral leases they hold along the front. Supporters of the ban have said a permanent solution enacted by Congress would help finalize those deals.