Locals resist a Bakkenization of the Beartooths

by Sarah Jane Keller

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.

The push for accountability in south-central Montana is the latest in a series of movements nationwide. The federal government’s 2005 decision to exempt fracking from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act has created a patchwork of state regulations, but local communities still doubt that those will protect them. Movements towards local fracking bans or moratoriums began in the Eastern U.S. in recent years and have spread into the West. Last spring, a New Mexico county became the first in the country to ban fracking. And last fall, voters in four Colorado Front Range cities passed similar ordinances. This February, Los Angeles’ city council voted to draft an ordinance.

In January, Colorado passed a law requiring energy companies to test groundwater quality before and after drilling. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, R, also championed groundbreaking baseline water testing requirements in his state. As of March, oil and gas companies now must test wells or springs within a half-mile of a drilling site.

Wyoming’s rules were born out of the kind of life-changing mess the Montana landowners want to avoid. In Pavillion, Wyo., ranchers have waited years to learn whether their groundwater was ruined by fracked wells owned by Encana Oil and Gas. In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the connection. The EPA’s 2011 draft report linked fracking to deep aquifer pollution, a first for a scientific study. After the study drew criticism for being shoddy and incomplete, the EPA decided not to finalize it, instead abandoning its report and letting Wyoming take the lead. (The Encana-funded research is due for release this September.) Such retreats are starting to look like an EPA pattern. That leaves Lehnherr to ponder who will look out for his community if something goes wrong.

There’s been no move in the Montana Legislature toward a baseline water testing law. Aside from a handful of state research programs, the burden falls on individuals to find affordable, scientifically credible ways to test their wells and springs. Landowners in the Beartooths area may approach ECA with a baseline testing proposal of their own, says Lehnherr. He points out that, even if ECA has its own plan, not all baseline testing can protect landowners. For the sampling to be legally defensible, it must be performed by a trained, independent third party and sent to a lab able to test for the dozens of gases, hydrocarbons and other chemicals that can creep into aquifers during oil and gas extraction.

The Northern Plains Resource Council would like to start a conversation with lawmakers and the public about baseline testing rules in Montana, before the state’s next legislative session in 2015.  In the meantime, Lehnherr and others are still gearing up to have their own wells tested as soon as possible, while looking for ways to help more Montanans do the same: “We’re not waiting for other people to look out for us.”

Sarah Jane Keller is a correspondent for High Country News. She tweets @sjanekeller.

© High Country News