Early this week, New West broke a story:

Sen. Conrad Burns inserted language into the 2007 Interior Appropriations Bill today that would prevent all new oil and gas leases on federal land along the Rocky Mountain Front.

If you know anything about Conrad Burns, right now you’re saying whaaa?! The League of Conservation Voters has Burns in its Dirty Dozen (PDF) of anti-conservation lawmakers, and that judgment is widely shared in the environmental community. Burns has said before that he thinks drilling is peachy, and even opposed a similar move by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) last year.

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So what’s going on? Nobody seems to know for sure. If you believe Burns’ spokesflack, the senator was just listening to his constituents — according to this story, "almost 49,000 people from throughout the nation commented on the proposed project, with 99 percent wanting to keep the Front off-limits to gas and oil exploration" — and implementing common-sense policy.

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But still. Whaaa?!

Burns says he wanted to help the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front, a group of ranchers, hunters, conservationists, sport groups, businessfolk, and such that has been buying up leases for years. Problem is, the leases can be re-issued. Burns’ legislation would prevent that: "it stipulates that if any [existing] leases are sold back to the government, donated or purchased by conservation groups or another third party, the leases could never be offered for sale again."

Jay Antenen thinks the explanation is a tough re-election fight with state Senate President Jon Tester (whom LCV has endorsed). And I suppose it’s possible that Burns has simply had a change of heart and wants to do the right thing.

But still. Weird.

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The Interior Appropriations bill will still have to go through Burns committee, back to the Senate, on to conference committee, and then to both houses. I’ll let you know what happens.