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Know the West

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.