The Rocky Mountain Front blues

  • The Blackfeet Reservation has welcomed oil and gas exploration despite the concerns of some tribal members.

    Tony Bynum
  • "I don't look forward to having another Williston (the hub for North Dakota's Bakken oil rush)," says Dan Greer, a contractor who supplies water tanks on drill sites near Heart Butte, Montana, "but it's nice having the work."

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • Mike Briggs, ranch manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch along the Rocky Mountain Front, walks by the capped wellhead left after an oil exploration company drilled on the ranch last fall looking for an economically feasible amount of oil.

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • A standing-room-only crowd listens to state and county officials during a meeting in Choteau regarding the effects of energy development in the area.

    Kurt Wilson/Missoulian
  • A solitary ranch near Augusta, Montana.

    USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

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The Front's energy resources are nowhere as reliable and rich as the Bakken play in the Williston Basin in eastern Montana and North Dakota. The Williston's oil-producing layer is 20 to 80 feet thick, whereas the layer along the Front is around five feet thick. So the payout here would be lower than in the Bakken, and the drillers groping around the Front have to deal with very challenging geology. With natural gas prices at historic lows, because the new technologies opening shale reserves across the U.S. have created an unprecedented glut, many drilling projects are on hold. But a complex new worldwide market is taking shape. Our nation's largest export terminal for liquefied natural gas (LNG) is being built in Louisiana, a $10 billion project, to ship to Korea, Japan and Spain, where the selling price is much higher than here. Federal regulators have approved another new LNG port on the Texas coast, and are considering proposals for many more, including one in Coos Bay, Ore., to export to Asian markets, using the Pacific Connector Pipeline to bring gas from the Rocky Mountains and other producing regions. There is a nationwide rush to retrofit or convert coal-fired power plants to burn the cleaner, much cheaper natural gas. The rumblings of a new U.S. transportation model can also be heard, as cars are fitted with engines that burn compressed natural gas, and trucks convert to LNG. The hue and cry of "natural gas" is on every investor's lips.

The question as to when the price of the natural gas will rebound again, triggering a new rush of drilling, has not yet been answered, but soon will be. Add new research showing that the productivity of many recent gas wells declines at an unexpectedly fast rate, and you're left with a kind of cliffhanger, with only one guarantee: Wherever natural gas and oil resources have not been declared off-limits, they will be developed eventually.

A single successful oil or gas well can generate millions of dollars for the local economy along the Front, along with enormous company profits, so they will keep trying.

Since I began reporting on energy issues, the greatest change I have witnessed has come in our attitudes, across the U.S. Generally, the pendulum has swung away from conservation, and toward an acceptance of trade-offs in developing domestic energy resources. There has been no widespread rebellion against oil and gas, despite both the obvious and subtle environmental impacts, including climate change. When it was widely trumpeted in 2013 that the North Dakota Bakken oilfields could contain as many as 7.4 billion barrels of oil, more than anyone had imagined, no one noted that this would still only be enough to fuel the U.S. for 350 days. And that math, of course, doesn't include the fact that most of the oil will be sold on the global market. When it was reported that the same Bakken oilfields were burning off, into the atmosphere, enough natural gas every day to heat a half-million homes, simply because it wasn't "economical" to build a new pipeline, people just shrugged and went about their business.

Many would say that the U.S. has become a more pragmatic nation since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I would say that we have lowered our expectations, abandoned our notions of efficiency and innovation, and instead accepted a model of short-term pillage and squander, not just of the energy resources with which we were blessed, but also of the landscapes that contain them. This is not an abstraction to me. I've seen it, and it is real.

As I began drafting this essay last summer, a sow grizzly killed 70 sheep in one hell-raising night east of a small town named Conrad, a long way from the mountains. She and her cub were on the move, wandering the ancestral traces on the grasslands.

A week later, my son and I set out to ride borrowed horses to White River Pass in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, to help outfitter friends shovel a path through the snow so they could bring a pack string to their camp. The drive to the trailhead was 30 miles, almost all of it gravel and washboard. We passed only four or five ranch houses between Augusta and the beginning of Forest Service land, all of them lost in a vastness of emerald prairie grass, bright yellow balsam root, purple irises in the lower, wetter ground. Antelope were everywhere, their fawns no bigger than border collies, running wild circles around their mothers. There were elk out on the prairies. (Local wisdom says that the growing number of wolves has made it impossible for the elk to calve in the backcountry public lands.)

The whole of the drive, until the mountains, was overshadowed by the strange tower of Haystack Butte, which has been a landmark for human beings here long before maps were drawn in charcoal and ochre on a scrap of buffalo or antelope hide. Haystack Butte is mostly state land, all of it leased for energy exploration. The magnificent private lands around it? They're also leased.

In a world of 7.5 billion souls and counting, in a nation that expects to add 100 million people in the next 30 years or so, all of them expecting to be warmed and fed and powered, we nature freaks, and those who associate solitude with freedom, face hard times ahead. The oil and gas may or may not lie beneath the prairies here. It may not even matter. The relentless eagerness with which so many of us, who live in this land and know it best, have embraced the quest to find the fossil fuels tells the truest, saddest story of our future.


Hal Herring is a freelance journalist and book author based in Augusta, Montana; his previous HCN stories have focused on wolves, bison, grizzlies, predator politics, whitebark pinecone picking, and chronic wasting disease in elk, among other topics.

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