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

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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.

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.