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BILLINGS - A conservation group sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Thursday, saying the agency failed to fully study the possible environmental effects of coal-bed methane drilling before releasing a plan backing the activity.

The Northern Plains Resource Council is asking a judge to prevent the BLM from granting drilling permits until a more complete environmental study is completed.

"They need to go back and look at it and take care of the farmers' and ranchers' needs so they don't get rid of them in the process," said Mark Fix, a member of Northern Plains and an irrigator near Miles City. "We don't want to trade one industry for another."

Drilling for coal-bed methane requires releasing large volumes of groundwater to ease the pressure that holds the gas in coal seams. Many farmers and conservationists say the water is often salty and can damage crops, other vegetation and the soil itself.

The BLM released its own "record of decision" for the plan on Wednesday. Greg Albright, a spokesman for the BLM, said Thursday he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

Only one company is now producing coal-bed methane commercially in Montana. But a recently finished environmental study, a cooperative effort by the state and BLM, provides the framework for future drilling and exploration in Montana and, specifically, in the Powder River Basin.

The mineral-rich basin extends into southern Montana from northern Wyoming, where coal-bed methane development has occurred at a breakneck pace in the past few years, and it is likely to be the hotbed of activity in this state, as well.

The Northern Plains lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Billings, aid the BLM released separate environmental studies of development in the two states when it should have done just one to consider cumulative effects.

The BLM also didn't "take a hard look at the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts" of development, such as how it might affect groundwater, soil, air and wildlife, Northern Plains claims. And the agency violated an environmental law when it failed to prepare a "supplemental" study taking into account new information and analyses, the group says in its lawsuit.

Northern Plains said it is also considering a separate lawsuit in state court.

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