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KALISPELL, Mont. – An Oklahoma-based natural gas company that holds 74 energy exploration leases in a key watershed in Flathead County is likely to retire the leases but discussions are still being held, a spokesman says.

Chip Minty, of Devon Energy Corp., said the company is working with state officials, including U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, to reach an agreement. Devon is one of the last to resist congressional efforts to increase protections for the North Fork Flathead drainage in western Montana.

Baucus’ office told the Missoulian that the senator has reached out to all the remaining lease holders asking them to retire their lease holdings. Those include nearly 138,000 acres that contain the primary source of Whitefish’s drinking water supply. Other companies that have in the last year retired their leases in the region include BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.

“If you look at the leadership that has been shown by all these major companies, it is clear that relinquishing leases makes sense, and hopefully Devon Energy can follow that leadership,” said Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Officials said companies wanting to explore for oil or gas in the area would have to meet requirements set by the National Environmental Policy Act. Companies moving ahead with such plans would likely face opposition from conservation groups.

“It’s a matter of talking to (Devon) and getting them to recognize the uniqueness of this area and join in with their peers, these other oil companies who have voluntarily withdrawn their leases,” said Dave Hadden of the Flathead Coalition.

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