That old Bakken forth

 

There's an ongoing, half-bitter joke at High Country News that nothing we cover ever reaches true resolution. Flip through newsprint HCN papers from the 1990s and you're bound to see headlines you could very well read on our blog or in our now-glossy pages today: "Las Vegas seeks watery jackpot," "Conservatism still reigns in Idaho," "The West's native sheep scramble for a foothold," or the perennial "ORVs are the scourge of the West's public lands."

It's enough to make a girl feel that she's traveling some kind of journalistic mobius strip.

Which brings us to Montana's Rocky Mountain Front -- a sweep of sheer-cliffed peaks that virtually explode upward from the gentle swells of the High Plains. Its northern stretch is the subject of a stunning environmental victory: In 1997, a decades-long protection effort culminated with then-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Gloria Flora banning new oil and gas leasing all along her forest's section of the Front for 10-15 years. The move -- which is difficult to imagine taking place in the current drill-here-drill-now political climate, especially with an election coming up -- not only safeguarded the area's unequaled vistas, but also the last place in the contiguous U.S. where grizzlies still wander onto the High Plains, and where one of the nation's largest elk herds still roams. In late 2006, Congress permanently protected federal lands and minerals in the area from further oil and gas leasing.

When I met Flora on a fellowship trip in 2007 with the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources, she said that one of the reasons such moves were politically possible, aside from the diverse cross-section of locals who backed them and the upswell of national popular support, was that companies who had worked the area never turned up much with their exploratory drilling.

F

ast-forward to today, though, and oil and gas speculation is again in the news for the stretch of the Front between Choteau and the Canadian border. Companies suspect that an arm of the extremely fruitful Bakken Formation -- a booming oil play on the Montana-North Dakota-Alberta border -- extends west through Canada and down along the Rocky Mountains, right beneath many of those gorgeous areas folks have been working to protect for so long, and right next to Glacier National Park.

The new exploration activity is centered on the Blackfeet Reservation (see photographer Tony Bynum's effort to document it here), which as a sovereign nation isn't covered by the previous bans, and on private land, the owners of which may or may not hold their mineral rights. Last fall, a company even drilled an exploratory well on the Boone and Crocket Club's famous Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch; because the group doesn't own the mineral rights beneath its land, the conservation easement that protects the place can't shield it from oil and gas exploration. Efforts to conserve the area were, according to the Missoulian, part of what motivated some to aggressively seek development:

"I credit the current oil and gas exploration to the overzealous protection of the save-the-Front folks," said Choteau resident Dan Lindseth. "They just got under the skin of two guys who said, ‘This isn't fair.' "

Lindseth ... and Choteau rancher Harold Yeager formed a partnership they called Montana Overthrust Management (and) started visiting private landowners who controlled the mineral rights below their properties. They put together a package of 125,000 acres of lease options, which they sold to the Canadian firm Primary Petroleum. ... (I)n 2009, fields across the border in the Alberta part of the Bakken formation started showing potential. Lindseth and Yeager by then had 300,000 acres under option. Primary Petroleum found a new joint venture partner and committed to spend $41 million on Rocky Mountain Front exploration in 2011, Lindseth said, with another $48 million to be spent in 2012.

 

It is, so far, impossible to tell what the new activity will mean long term for Glacier, Teton and Pondera Counties, or for the Blackfeet Reservation. As I noted before, folks have looked for oil and gas off and on along these mountains over the last few decades without huge success. Bureau of Land Management petroleum engineer Don Judice put it this way at a recent informational meeting in Choteau: "Right now, it's a science project. It could be nothing, they take their black eyes and go away. Or it could be -- 'Holy crap, we found it.' "

But if the drilling on the Bakken further east is any indication, conservationists would be right to worry.

After all, the Bakken once didn't figure much into the U.S. energy equation. Then, advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing vastly increased the amount of oil that can be recovered from the reserve and development exploded. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil are pumped from the ground each day, and wells, rigs and mancamps have popped up everywhere, along with all of their associated environmental harms.  Now, Bloomberg reports, North Dakota is producing almost as much oil as the OPEC nation Equador.

So it is that we at HCN may again find ourselves covering the Rocky Mountain Front, perhaps under a headline strikingly -- and depressingly -- similar to those we ran about the place in the mid and late 1990s.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News Associate Editor

Image: Maintenance drill rig on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Rising Wolf Mountain, Two Medicine Valley, Glacier National Park, Background. Courtesy Tony Bynum, http://tonybynum.com/oil-project/