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for people who care about the West

Montanans close to Yellowstone better wake up


Paradise Valley, my husband often jokes, is heaven only for real estate agents. Opulent log "cabins" crowd the banks of the Yellowstone River, and working family ranches can be counted on fewer fingers every year. Yet these changes seem secondary to the common foundation of our lives: the rise and fall of the river, the seasonal pace of wildlife migrations, fires in the mountains and commerce in the valley.

But like many communities in Montana, we may soon sharing our backyard with a new set of neighbors, and the changes these folks bring will not be so benign. Until recently, the oil and gas industry has been the source of horror stories from Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico: the names of towns like Pinedale, Rifle and Farmington have become shorthand for cautionary tales told with a "thank-God-it's-not-us" undertone.

But with advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that literally wring gas from rock, places that previously were uneconomical to drill are now good bets. Instead of the ocean beds so catastrophically explored by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, Montana offers geologic frontiers like the Bakken basin, an oil-bearing formation stretching from the Hi-Line to the Rocky Mountain Front. Alberta's coalbed methane potential doesn't stop at the Canadian border, while Halliburton is eyeing the Shields Valley, east ofBozeman, and ConocoPhillips has leases within sight of my backyard.

Before the drilling rigs arrive, it's worth considering what it means to live in a gas patch. Imagine taking a walk up a hill around your town to where you can see the valley stretched out below. Add a gas well every 20 acres. Each well takes up an acre or two; most well pads have a pump and compressor that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each well pad has a road, over which semi-sized water hauling and maintenance trucks travel every day. Each well has a pipeline connecting it to the larger world; every so often, you'll see these pipelines come together at gathering stations, where there are more and bigger pipelines and compressors. All of this is lit at night. Put a refinery on the edge of town and a land-farm too, where petroleum-contaminated dirt goes to be rehabilitated, and you've got a full-blown gas field.

What residents are left to weigh is a series of trade-offs. If the drilling starts, there will be a good-paying job for pretty much everyone who wants one. But mule deer, antelope and sage grouse will suffer, as will hunters and outfitters. Businesses in town will prosper, but we'll lose our night skies and the distinctive silence of the backcountry.

Oil and gas companies are notoriously civic-minded in certain ways; we'll have first-rate libraries and hospitals, recreation centers with indoor pools and tennis courts. Our arts centers will have plaques thanking Exxon, Encana or Yates Petroleum. But the character of our communities will change to accommodate the influx of roughnecks from all over the country, people who don't have a long-term stake in things like whether the river gets contaminated or toxic reserve pits are properly cleaned up.

Of course, we can live with oil and gas; lots of people do. But the way we occupy this landscape will be forever altered, as the land itself is changed. The nation is attempting to balance its energy needs on the back of the Rocky Mountain West, and while there are a few places where people have said "not here" -- the Rocky Mountain Front, New Mexico's Valle Vidal and Gallisteo Basin -- in most places people are losing the fight, largely because these changes come so subtly: a well here, a lease there. There was little opportunity to consider the larger consequences of full-scale oil and gas production.

That's because our laws have evolved to favor energy development. The rights of landowners diminish with every step: When mineral ownership is severed from the land above, when an area is leased or that first well drilled, it becomes far more difficult to put on the brakes. States and counties can enact a few rules regarding setbacks from houses and schools or token payments for loss of use, but there's no meaningful balance between surface and mineral rights.

When these issues go to court, mineral rights trump every time. If Montanans want a say in their future, the time to speak up is now.

Andrea Peacock is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a 2010 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow and lives south of Livingston, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].