Montana gets a crash course in methane

  • Gallatin County, Montana

    Diane Sylvain
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The Powder River Basin doesn't end at the state line; about one-third of the sprawling basin lies in Montana. Though the coal seams are thinner here than in Wyoming, coalbed methane development is expected to explode in the northern third of the basin and in several other parts of Montana.

So far, private companies have drilled only 250 coalbed methane wells in the Treasure State. Almost all of them have been drilled by Fidelity Exploration and Development on 10,000 acres of federal, state and fee minerals in the Powder River Basin near Decker, Mont.

In early October, only one coalbed methane drill rig was operating in the entire state. Montana has all but prohibited additional coalbed methane drilling, probably until next summer. The moratorium on drilling is part of a June 2000 legal settlement between the Billings-based Northern Plains Resource Council and the Montana Board of Oil & Gas Conservation (HCN, 9/25/00: Colliding forces: Has Colorado's oil and gas industry met its match?).

In its lawsuit, Northern Plains said the state board was issuing coalbed methane drilling permits near Decker without conducting the environmental impact studies required by the Montana Environmental Protection Act. To settle the suit, the state established the moratorium on new wells and agreed to conduct a statewide environmental impact statement on coalbed methane. The settlement allows private companies to drill 200 exploratory wells, and permits Fidelity to drill a total of 325 wells on its lease near Decker.

The moratorium is giving Montana some breathing room. Activists around the state are using the hiatus to gear up for a projected boom in coalbed methane development, and at least one county is drafting new legislation to regulate coalbed methane drilling.

"It's been a crash course in coalbed methane for all of us," says Jennifer Madgic, a planner for western Montana's Gallatin County. In early July, the New Jersey firm J.M. Huber Corp. filed a permit application to drill an exploratory well on leased minerals in Gallatin County, among a cluster of residential ranchettes near Bozeman Pass. The state approved that application, but Huber bowed to local pressure and withdrew it prior to a review by the local zoning district.

"This issue probably has received more attention than anything in recent years," says Madgic. "This just brought people out of the woodwork."

Susan McGrath, an organizer with the newly formed Park (County) and Gallatin Citizens' Alliance, says 150 people showed up at a Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation hearing to oppose the Huber application. "I don't think the oil and gas board was used to that," she says. "They were floored."

Huber has leased mineral rights, mostly from private owners, on about 18,000 acres around Bozeman, and other companies have picked up leases on an additional 60,000 acres, although much of that may be for more traditional oil and gas drilling. The county is considering a variety of regulations, including restrictions on well placement, to protect health and safety and to control the impacts of coalbed methane development.

"We understand the mineral right is a property right," says Melissa Frost, a program staffer for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman and a Park and Gallatin Citizens' Alliance founder. "However, we would like to see surface owners have at least equal rights."

At the moment, about a half-dozen companies are working in Montana on coalbed methane, says Board of Oil and Gas Commission administrator Tom Richmond. They've spoken for all 200 exploratory wells, and half of those have been permitted.

One big unknown is how closely wells will be spaced in Montana. On Fidelity's lease near Decker, permits allow up to four wells per coal seam per 160 acres, or a de facto spacing of one well per seam per 40 acres. But well spacing in the rest of the state is typically set at one per section, or 640 acres. "I don't know if anybody thinks coalbed methane could be economically developed here for that," Richmond says.

Once the state completes its environmental impact statement, tentatively in July 2002, Richmond expects drilling to commence, but not so rapidly as in Wyoming. "There are some constraints, not the least being availability of pipelines to move the gas," he says. "I don't think we're going to see thousands of wells drilled every year. Maybe several hundred."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Hal Clifford

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: