Locals resist a Bakkenization of the Beartooths

South-central Montanans oppose new drilling, forewarned by fracking’s impacts in other states.

  • Broken hills and valleys spread out along the Beartooth Mountains in this aerial view near Absarokee, Montana. The energy company Energy Corporation of America has said it would like to make the region the next Bakken.

    Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette
  • Deb Muth of the Carbon County Resource Council speaks at a rally in December to protest oil drilling and possible fracking along the Beartooth Front.

    Casey Page/Billings Gazette

When Dave Lehnherr first heard that there was a possibility of oil and gas drilling starting up near his home in the foothills of south-central Montana’s postcard-perfect Beartooth Mountains, he asked environmental groups for help in stopping it. That was in 2012. The radiologist and outdoors enthusiast got some nibbles of interest, but no solid commitments. Then last October, an executive for a West Virginia-based oil and gas company did Lehnherr a favor.

At the opening of the Billings office of Energy Corporation of America, chief operating officer John Mork described the promise ECA sees in the region, saying, “We’d love to bring something like the Bakken, maybe something a little more orderly than what is going on in Williston (N.D.) right now, to the areas around the Bighorns and other areas in Montana. It would fundamentally change these areas the way it has changed other areas of the United States.”

Mork’s reference to the Bakken excited some locals, evoking a picture of profits and prosperity. In Carbon and Stillwater counties, where 20,000 or so people are surviving on agriculture, a bit of recreation and tourism, and a precious-metals mine, an infusion of cash and people would come in handy. But for others, the mention of the oil-rich shale formation underneath western North Dakota and eastern Montana conjured images of air pollution, scary truck traffic, crime and contaminated water. Now some citizens, determined to protect their agricultural livelihood and quality of life, are organizing to try to exert some control over future energy development.

It’s not as if Carbon County, where ECA is preparing to drill a new exploratory well, is a complete stranger to oil and gas. The company already has several wells in the county, east of the Beartooth Mountains, and has been operating in Montana for 30 years. Yet its activities didn’t attract much attention until Mork invoked the Bakken while describing ECA’s hopes to sink about 50 more wells.

Five or 10 years ago, probably few people would have reacted to such news. Since then, though, the energy boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting fluids at high pressure to coax oil and gas from deep underground, has taken off and the public is increasingly aware of the trade-offs involved.

And the risks and rewards of rapid development can be expressed by the mere mention of two place names – the Bakken, where rural infrastructure is buckling under a booming transient population, and Pavillion, Wyo., where groundwater is tainted with methane and hydrocarbons. As Lehnherr says, “Obviously, we don’t want to become like Pavillion.”

While no one in south-central Montana is currently proposing a fracking moratorium,  members of the agriculture and landowner-focused group, Northern Plains Resource Council, are discussing the idea. “People are becoming aware, and should become aware, that there is a chance that we could lose the quality of our water,” says Deb Muth, an organizer for one of the council’s local affiliates in Carbon County.  She’s referring to the pollution that could result from a wastewater or fracking fluid spill on the surface, as well as possible groundwater contamination caused by a faulty well casing. Many people see fracking itself as a threat, though there’s still not definitive evidence.

Yet rather than get into a protracted political fight over rules or restrictions, the council has decided to focus on helping landowners document exactly what’s in their water now, so they have evidence in case ECA later pollutes it. “Hopefully, (baseline testing) will let the oil and gas companies know that people here aren’t ignorant,” says Lehnherr. “If you aren’t operating with the best practices, you are going to be held accountable.”

Bonnie Martinell, an organic farmer and orchardist who lives about a mile and a half downhill from the exploration site, is one of at least a dozen landowners in the area interested in baseline testing before development. She notes that though most of her neighbors aren’t against oil and gas development on principle, they don’t trust ECA to look out for their best interests. “Our concern is that they’ll do the damage and we’ll have to foot the bill,” she says.

But even as concerned citizens are advocating for baseline testing, ECA says it’s already planning to do some. Kyle Mork, ECA’s chief operating officer said in an interview at the end of March that ECA does in fact do baseline water testing at their wells, though he wasn’t able to give specifics about the company’s methods. That was new information to Muth and Lehnherr, who say that no one from the Council had called the company directly to ask about water testing. This disconnect may be a reflection of the adversarial relationship between the company and some citizens who oppose the wells in Carbon County, says Lehnherr. That may have discouraged people from going to ECA with specific questions.

In a November letter to the Carbon County newspaper, ECA’s John Mork said that the company is committed to being a good environmental steward, and tried to calm fears about Bakkenizing the Beartooths: “We are just exploring the potential for development at this point,” he said, “and in fact, the areas may never be developed.” Even if they are developed, south-central Montana’s oil deposits are much smaller than those in the Bakken.

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Mar 31, 2014 01:38 PM
A number of Basin Advisory Councils, organized last year as part of the Montana Water Supply Initiative, plan to address this issue in recommendations to 2015 the state legislature.
Mark York
Mark York
Mar 31, 2014 07:55 PM
The State established a baseline testing program in the Shields Valley after a couple of test wells went in, in 2008.Companies left and now the state have a standard to go by should the companies return to develop.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Apr 01, 2014 08:10 AM
ECA says they will be a good steward. That's just spin, what Exactly does that mean in actions? I have been to the Bakken it's like the wild West no rules. The industry says with horizontal drilling less rigs less impact. Yet without rules the reality is they want to get the oil out of the ground as fast and quick as they can. On one 2 mile stretch of road I saw 10 drilling pads with three separate pumps on each pad. The Once quiet feel of this prairie was severely impacted and looked now more like a commercial industrial zone.
Wanda Ballentine
Wanda Ballentine
Apr 01, 2014 04:27 PM
Tell everyone seeking to avoid fracking to check The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF.org), which educates communities and people as to how to exercise their inherent right of self-governance, and to dismantle corporate so-called Constitutional "rights" with some very careful legislation. So far 150 communities have passed the legislation, and now one county, Mora in New Mexico, has banned fracking. Colorado is how dealing with this - see below. The legislation is set up so that any corporation that wants to sue must sue on the people's terms - not the regulatory laws by which corporations will win. My friend, Paul Cienfuego works with them - here is a video relating much of what Paul says. He does workshops everywhere, for cheap, just trying to get the word out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMACmsOk6yU

More here:


Local Communities Dismantling Corporate Rule, part 1
Community Rights educator Paul Cienfuegos explains how "We The People" are exercising the authority to govern ourselves and dismantle corporate rule. When small farmers in rural Pennsylvania wanted to say "no" to a corporate factory farm coming into their community, they learned they couldn't, because it would violate the corporation's "rights" and state pre-emption laws. So they did something technically illegal - their town passed an innovative ordinance banning corporate factory farming. It worked! The corporation left town. Pittsburgh upshifted the approach: Rather than define what we don't want, define what we DO want. Their "Right to Water" stopped natural gas fracking in the city. Ordinances like this have been passed in over 150 communities in 9 states. Tune in to learn how this works. Episode 258. [paulcienfuegos.com, celdf.org, YouTube channel "Community Rights TV" and communityrightspdx.org]

Local Communities Dismantling Corporate Rule, part 2
“I’m not aware of any other social movement going on in the US today that has the power to challenge and win against corporate rule, push back and dismantle corporate rights, and enshrine rights for actual human beings,” asserts Community Rights educator and organizer Paul Cienfuegos.
Local Community Rights ordinances are not only stripping “rights” from corporations, but asserting that nature has rights. Two Oregon counties have submitted a “Right to Local Food Systems” ordinance which forbids genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and protects heritage seeds. Even more, it asserts the right to fully-functioning natural communities, even requiring a corporation to restore whatever it has disrupted.
Are these ordinances being challenged? Yes they are, but Paul explains how corporation leaders who want to sue are forced to do so on the community’s terms ­a brilliant strategy
Steve Engel
Steve Engel Subscriber
Apr 01, 2014 10:13 PM
Yes, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a great resource and a new and powerful approach to asserting control over our lives.
Sarah Jane Keller
Sarah Jane Keller Subscriber
Apr 02, 2014 12:35 PM
Mark: Thank you for pointing this out. I'll add some more info for those interested in water quality work going on in other regions of Montana with oil and gas development. I get the impression that state hydrologists have responded to local concerns when they've had funds available, as the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology did in the Shields Valley ( NW of the Beartooths and NE of Bozeman). The state has a long term groundwater quality assessment program, but that paints a broader brush picture of water quality. Montana's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation also has a one time water quality testing grant from the legislature to serve land owners in eastern Montana, where oil and gas development is more intense. I've heard they may divert some of those funds to southcentral Montana if they aren't used up. The USGS is also doing groundwater research in eastern Montana. This is not an exhaustive list. It's probably worth mentioning that these programs aren't equivalent to state regulation requiring targeted baseline testing before drilling.