HELENA — The Montana Land Board is preparing to sell easements to a Canadian company so that the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline can run through the state as it crosses some of Montana's most important rivers.
The board meets Monday to consider selling 50-year easements to TransCanada for $741,000. The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said it believes the up-front payment is the fair market value for such a lease and similar to what private landholders are getting.
Critics say the board isn't doing enough to make sure the pipeline will be safe for the environment — and argue it shouldn't be built at all.
The easements will, in total, cross almost 40 state tracts of eastern Montana school trust land in Phillips, Valley, Fallon, McCone and Dawson counties.
The 36-inch oil pipeline still faces several much larger hurdles than the Montana Land Board, including court battles elsewhere and a pending request for the presidential approval needed for such a cross-border project.
Outgoing Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who helped negotiate an on-ramp sought by a Montana oil industry struggling with ways to get their product to market, chairs the land board. His natural resources department director, Mary Sexton, said the river-crossing details will be settled later — but promised they would be safe.
Sexton said that much has been done to ensure that new pipelines are "significantly better than in the past" and far safer than the one that ruptured last year in the Yellowstone River near Billings. One new precaution is to drill the pipeline as far as 40-feet deep in solid rock to remove the possibility that erosion in the riverbed can break it.
Sexton said the state negotiated an up-front payment that will be deposited into an interest-earning fund that provides money for schools.
But Jim Jensen, executive of the Montana Environmental Information Center, is not impressed.
He said the Land Board should do more up front to guarantee the state is protected from any spills. And he said details on the river crossings should have been available prior to Land Board discussion on the matter.
"If spills occur on or near those crossings, it will be a serious problem, and yet the land board seems poised to simply move forward as though they are helpless," Jensen said.
Jensen, who does not believe the pipeline should be built, said the state should also analyze the impact that development of the Canadian oil fields will have on climate change.
"In the past, the governor has said to pipeline critics that it doesn't matter what the state does, these tar sands are going to be developed anyway. To me, that is just like saying to someone that is drunk and about to get in a car: 'Here is another drink. Go ahead and take it. Someone else will sell it to you if I don't.'"
The pipeline would eventually carry crude oil to refineries in southern Texas.