Under pressure, Montana opts for a slower approach

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, "Open for business."

MILES CITY, Mont. - After it drains the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, the Tongue River flows north to join the Yellowstone near this eastern Montana city. The Tongue doesn't carry a lot of water, but it's a lifeline for the wild creatures and handful of ranchers that scratch out a living on this sage-dominated, thirsty land that gets 12 inches of rain in a good year (HCN, 10/13/97: Borrowing courage from the past).

So when word spread that Redstone Resources, Montana's biggest coalbed methane developer, was pouring groundwater into the Tongue at a rate of nearly 1,200 gallons a minute, landowners started making some phone calls.

"At first, when they started into it, you couldn't figure out really who was in control," recalls local cattle rancher Mark Fix.

Fix and other landowners enlisted the help of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a regional environmental group, which filed suit against the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation under the Montana Environmental Protection Act.

In mid-June, the board agreed to stop issuing drilling permits for coalbed methane wells on state and private land until it completed an environmental impact statement. In exchange, the resource council agreed to drop the suit. Redstone Resources didn't challenge the settlement - in part because an exemption allowed them to obtain permits for 200 additional wells - but seven other methane companies intervened. At a Sept. 11 hearing, a district judge heard testimony from all sides, but has not yet decided whether to sign off on the settlement.

The controversy isn't over. At the end of June, the resource council sued Redstone Resources, charging that the company was violating the federal Clean Water Act by discharging groundwater into the Tongue River and one of its tributaries. The suit has not yet been resolved. Landowners and environmental groups in Montana are now moving their battle upstream, where Wyoming methane developers discharge an unknown amount of water into the Tongue.

Eric Whitney, formerly a reporter and public radio producer in Billings, Mont., now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Eric Whitney