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

When Dave Lehnherr first heard that there was a possibility of oil and gas drilling starting up near his home in the foothills of south-central Montana’s postcard-perfect Beartooth Mountains, he asked environmental groups for help in stopping it. That was in 2012. The radiologist and outdoors enthusiast got some nibbles of interest, but no solid commitments. Then last October, an executive for a West Virginia-based oil and gas company did Lehnherr a favor.

At the opening of the Billings office of Energy Corporation of America, chief operating officer John Mork described the promise ECA sees in the region, saying, “We’d love to bring something like the Bakken, maybe something a little more orderly than what is going on in Williston (N.D.) right now, to the areas around the Bighorns and other areas in Montana. It would fundamentally change these areas the way it has changed other areas of the United States.”

Mork’s reference to the Bakken excited some locals, evoking a picture of profits and prosperity. In Carbon and Stillwater counties, where 20,000 or so people are surviving on agriculture, a bit of recreation and tourism, and a precious-metals mine, an infusion of cash and people would come in handy. But for others, the mention of the oil-rich shale formation underneath western North Dakota and eastern Montana conjured images of air pollution, scary truck traffic, crime and contaminated water. Now some citizens, determined to protect their agricultural livelihood and quality of life, are organizing to try to exert some control over future energy development.

It’s not as if Carbon County, where ECA is preparing to drill a new exploratory well, is a complete stranger to oil and gas. The company already has several wells in the county, east of the Beartooth Mountains, and has been operating in Montana for 30 years. Yet its activities didn’t attract much attention until Mork invoked the Bakken while describing ECA’s hopes to sink about 50 more wells.

Five or 10 years ago, probably few people would have reacted to such news. Since then, though, the energy boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting fluids at high pressure to coax oil and gas from deep underground, has taken off and the public is increasingly aware of the trade-offs involved.

And the risks and rewards of rapid development can be expressed by the mere mention of two place names – the Bakken, where rural infrastructure is buckling under a booming transient population, and Pavillion, Wyo., where groundwater is tainted with methane and hydrocarbons. As Lehnherr says, “Obviously, we don’t want to become like Pavillion.”

While no one in south-central Montana is currently proposing a fracking moratorium,  members of the agriculture and landowner-focused group, Northern Plains Resource Council, are discussing the idea. “People are becoming aware, and should become aware, that there is a chance that we could lose the quality of our water,” says Deb Muth, an organizer for one of the council’s local affiliates in Carbon County.  She’s referring to the pollution that could result from a wastewater or fracking fluid spill on the surface, as well as possible groundwater contamination caused by a faulty well casing. Many people see fracking itself as a threat, though there’s still not definitive evidence.

Yet rather than get into a protracted political fight over rules or restrictions, the council has decided to focus on helping landowners document exactly what’s in their water now, so they have evidence in case ECA later pollutes it. “Hopefully, (baseline testing) will let the oil and gas companies know that people here aren’t ignorant,” says Lehnherr. “If you aren’t operating with the best practices, you are going to be held accountable.”

Bonnie Martinell, an organic farmer and orchardist who lives about a mile and a half downhill from the exploration site, is one of at least a dozen landowners in the area interested in baseline testing before development. She notes that though most of her neighbors aren’t against oil and gas development on principle, they don’t trust ECA to look out for their best interests. “Our concern is that they’ll do the damage and we’ll have to foot the bill,” she says.

But even as concerned citizens are advocating for baseline testing, ECA says it’s already planning to do some. Kyle Mork, ECA’s chief operating officer said in an interview at the end of March that ECA does in fact do baseline water testing at their wells, though he wasn’t able to give specifics about the company’s methods. That was new information to Muth and Lehnherr, who say that no one from the Council had called the company directly to ask about water testing. This disconnect may be a reflection of the adversarial relationship between the company and some citizens who oppose the wells in Carbon County, says Lehnherr. That may have discouraged people from going to ECA with specific questions.

In a November letter to the Carbon County newspaper, ECA’s John Mork said that the company is committed to being a good environmental steward, and tried to calm fears about Bakkenizing the Beartooths: “We are just exploring the potential for development at this point,” he said, “and in fact, the areas may never be developed.” Even if they are developed, south-central Montana’s oil deposits are much smaller than those in the Bakken.

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