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.