You are here: home   Blogs   The GOAT Blog   Another public lands giveaway?
The GOAT Blog

Another public lands giveaway?

Document Actions
Tip Jar Donation

Your donation supports independent non-profit journalism from High Country News.

Sarah Gilman | Dec 31, 2008 12:15 PM
Energy companies will be able to drill 18,000 new natural gas wells on 1.5 million federal acres in southeastern Montana's remote Powder River Basin over the next 20 years, thanks an amendment to the area's Resource Management Plan

released by the Bureau of Land Management in the waning days of the Bush administration. The basin, which spans the Wyoming-Montana border, is rich in coalbed methane, and the Wyoming side has boomed with natural gas development in recent years.


The plan may not be as brow-raising a giveaway as  six similar plans released in Utah a few months ago. Those documents opened up much of that state's delicate redrock country to oil and gas development and ATVs, and relied on faulty assessments of the potential air quality impacts

to justify the decision to do so. Still, the number of new Powder River Basin wells is particularly eye-catching given that energy companies have  drilled only 500 wells  in the Montana side of the basin over the past several years.


Rest-assured, though: the BLM has added a caveat. According to the Associated Press,
BLM officials say their latest plan would phase in drilling, meaning it could be halted if environmental problems arose. Agency spokesman Greg Albright said an industry shutdown could come long before all 18,000 predicted wells were drilled.

"If our monitoring shows we're getting into impacts that aren't acceptable, we're going to start making changes right now," he said. "We're not going to wait until we reach some number of wells."

Okay. But if Wyoming's Pinedale Anticline gasfield -- where the agency has allowed drilling to ramp up in the face of steep wildlife declines and unprecedented air pollution -- is any indication, the BLM is not always so good at changing course. And who decides whether an impact is acceptable or not?

Fortunately, the state of Montana and conservation groups scored some important legal victories this December that may help them to better safeguard the Montana half of the basin.

In order to extract coalbed methane, operators must pump massive quantities of water from the coal seams where the gas is trapped. The water is often salty -- making it potentially harmful to crops when it's dumped in rivers used by local irrigators. Irrigators also worry that the pumping could deplete the area's groundwater. Those concerns have spurred some intense legal scuffles between Montana, the feds, Wyoming and energy companies, as Montana has sought to regulate produced water quantity and quality where the Environmental Protection Agency failed to do so.

The two new court rulings have 1) vindicated the state's efforts to regulate the salt in the water as a pollutant, and 2) classified produced methane water as groundwater, meaning that area farmers and ranchers who hold senior water rights now have legal standing protest energy companies' potential overuse of the resource, the Helena Independant Record reports.


Email Newsletter

The West in your Inbox

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Follow our RSS feeds!
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. Why I am a Tea Party member |
  3. The privatization of public campground management | All the info you need to decide whether you love o...
  4. The Latest: Interior commits to restoring bison on select lands | The “odd ungulate out” gets a tentative win.
  5. Efficiency lessons from Germany |
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. A graceful gazelle becomes a pest | Inrroducing an African gazelle called the oryx for...
  3. What's killing the Yukon's salmon? | An ecological mystery in Alaska has scientists and...
  4. Plains sense | Ten years after Frank and Deborah Popper first pro...
  5. North Dakota wrestles with radioactive oilfield waste | Regulators look at raising the limit for radiation...
More from Energy
On booms and their remains A North Dakota photographer returns home to examine changes to the landscape.
Efficiency lessons from Germany
The Latest: Mining battle update at Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau State supreme court gives green light to tar sands permits.
All Energy
© 2014 High Country News, all rights reserved. | privacy policy | terms of use | powered by Plone