Another public lands giveaway?

  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.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.