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Know the West

Rural residents split over coalbed methane


In Powder River County on the plains southeast of Billings, a new grassroots group has formed to work on coalbed methane issues. Unlike many other groups around the West, though, the members of the Citizens for Resource Development say, "Bring on the drilling."

"This is coming from our hearts," says rancher Rick Rice, the group’s founder. Nearly 400 people — almost one-quarter of the county’s population — have signed a petition calling for methane development, he says. Signers include key county officials and a local grocer.

The petition is critical of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a group working to slow methane drilling in Montana. The 34-year-old group, whose leaders include ranchers in neighboring Rosebud County, sued the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2003 to challenge the agency’s approval of thousands of new methane wells. A federal magistrate in Billings agreed that the BLM’s study of impacts was inadequate, and now the court arguments center on whether drilling must stop until a new study is done.

Mark Fix, a leader of the Northern Plains Resource Council, says his group is concerned about salty wastewater flowing into rivers that provide irrigation water. "Our goal is to protect the water quality, protect families and protect the Montana lifestyle," he says.

Some of the disagreement about methane extraction stems from the difference in the counties’ economies. Rosebud County, while rural, has jobs and collects property taxes from most of Montana’s existing methane wells, several coal mines and a power plant. In contrast, the economy in Powder River County is all ranching and farming, and the tax base is a tiny fraction of Rosebud County’s.

Rice’s group believes the drilling can be done with acceptable impacts. "A majority of us who live here and will face the brunt," he says, "are for it."