HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A conservation group has filed a lawsuit seeking documents concerning Attorney General Tim Fox's joining other states in protesting Bureau of Land Management plans to regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land.
Lee Newspapers of Montana reports that the Montana Environmental Information Center filed the lawsuit against Fox late last week in state District Court in Helena.
In August, Fox joined attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska and Oklahoma in sending a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell expressing "serious concerns" and "strong objection" to proposed rules governing hydraulic fracturing.
Also known as fracking, the technique boosts production from oil and gas wells by pumping pressurized water into the wells to fracture open deposits.
The conservation group contends Fox is refusing to comply with public records laws in not releasing documents the group requested having to do with his decision to join the other attorneys general.
"This lawsuit is simply about the attorney general of Montana refusing to comply with the public records act and the Montana constitutional right to know, plain and simple," said Jim Jensen, MEIC's executive director. "We asked for documents and they refused to give a full disclosure. What is the attorney general hiding?"
John Barnes, Fox's spokesman, responded with a statement: "The true political nature of MEIC's lawsuit is made evident by the fact that MEIC went to the press before notifying our office of the lawsuit, and the fact that the lawsuit singles out the Republican Attorney General's office when both our Democrat governor and the attorney general worked together to protect Montana jobs from unnecessary federal regulation."
On the same day the attorneys general sent the letter, Gov. Steve Bullock wrote his own letter to Jewell noting his "deep concern" about proposed rules involving hydraulic fracturing.
The conservation group said that it requested from Fox on Aug. 30 any documents having to do with the letter sent by the attorneys general. Fox responded on Nov. 6 with a letter explaining reasons for withholding some documents, some of them due to litigation or expected litigation.
Some email addresses, the lawsuit said, were redacted for privacy reasons.
"Government email addresses are not protected by any individual privacy rights," the complaint states. "To the extent that any of the individuals are not public officials or employees, they are members of the public involving themselves in a public policy debate."
The two sides exchanged more letters and on Jan. 3 Fox's office released more documents but also continued to withhold others.
"When the attorney general of the state of Montana took a broad policy position on a controversial environmental matter on behalf of the state of Montana, there can be, and is no, individual privacy interest at state in documents generated by, or sent to, the attorney general," the complaint said.
As for the federal rules involving fracking, Jewell has said they're needed to reconcile a patchwork of state fracking rules. The proposed rules would establish standards for the wells and a way for companies to disclose the chemical ingredients in fracking fluids.