Important documents for Thursday’s meeting on the Stillwater River Road closure

Reminder: There will be a public meeting to discuss the Stillwater River Road closure at the Nye Fire Hall on Thursday, July 30 at 6:30pm. All three Stillwater County Commissioners are expected to be in attendance.

Click on graphic to read full document

Click on graphic to read full document

The Stillwater County Commissioners released two documents to the Billings Gazette yesterday that they will be presenting at the meeting. These include a “geotechnical reconnaissance” and risk assessment prepared by SK Geotechnical of Billings and received by the County Commissioners on June 15, and a preliminary proposal for rockfall remediation by Geostabilization International (GSI) of Grand Junction, CO, dated July 13. The two documents were prepared for Great West Engineering of Billings, which presumably is being considered as the contractor for the project. The two documents have been combined into one, and are a total of eight pages. I strongly recommend you read them if you are going to the meeting. You can download them by clicking on the graphic at right.

Key points from the risk assessment
The risk assessment includes two photos (pages 7 and 8) that highlight the situation as of June 15. Key points:

  • “Numerous areas…appear to be unstable. In the vicinity of label 2 (see photos below), several suitcase-sized rocks were observed which appeared to be relatively loose. Outside of the immediate wedge failure area, other portions of the rock face appear to have a high risk of wedge failures in the future. Areas #9 and #10 have discontinuities that intersect to create a wedge. They appear to be relatively stable when compared to the loose rocks in area #2, but the risk of failure still exists. A large rock is defined by the discontinuity shown with lines labeled #7 and #8. These discontinuities represent failure planes, and although no active movement was observed, there is a risk of future failure.

Stillwater River Road rockslide photo1
As to the question of the amount of risk, the report is somewhat equivocal. It states that there is clearly risk, but “the rock face has always had a risk of failure and subsequent hazardous conditions. The risk of failure increases seasonally with the highest risk coming in the spring with heavy snow melt and spring rains. A seismic event (earthquake) is one of the highest risks for rock slides to occur along the rock face. It is our opinion the rock face is currently at a slightly higher risk of failure than it was one day before failure due to the visible seeps. When these seeps are no longer visible, then it is our opinion the risk of failure is basically the same as it was before the recent rock slide. Assuming some risk is acceptable, then it is our opinion the road can be cleared and opened when the visible seeps are no longer apparent.

Stillwater River Road rockslide photo1The question of risk should be a key area of discussion at the meeting.

Key points from the preliminary proposal
Scope of work
“The most critical portion of the slope is approximately 1/4 mile long, and can be separated into two remediation plans:

  1. The most dangerous part has loose rock, which can be mitigated by rock scaling to remove the loose rock.
  2. Installation of a temporary rockfall catchment system

A flexible rockfall barrier is recommended for the remaining 1/4 mile.

“It is further recommended that the rockfall remediation budget contain an allowance for rock dowel/deadbolt installation…to anchor rock formations that can not be removed safely with scaling techniques, but are too large to be arrested by the flexible rockfall barrier.”

The estimated cost of the proposal includes:

  • Mobilization of the company                          $  20,632
  • Rock scaling to remove loose rock                 $322,061
  • Rock bolt/dowels (30)                                      $154,830
  • Flexible rockfall barrier                                    $999,557
    Total                                                                 $1,476,448

What is included in the cost estimate:

  • Mobilization
  • Manual scaling
  • Rock bolt installation
  • Flexible rockfall barrier

What is not included, and would presumably be the responsibility of the County:

  • Traffic control
  • Construction permits, if required
  • Hauling of debris
  • Construction surveying, if required

GSI indicates they can be on site within three weeks of signing a contract, and would do the work in one continuous effort. Scaling would take approximately 15 days.

GSI suggests  the placement of the flexible rockfall barrier could be deferred until a later time, which would reduce the cost of the work by a million dollars.

As I understand this, that means that, once the County contracts with these companies, it would take three weeks to get to work, and another few weeks to do the work. The total short-term cost would be about $500,000.


This is just an overview. I recommend that you read the documents before the meeting. There is much to discuss.

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Posted in error

To read post, go here.

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Stillwater County residents: public meeting on Stillwater River Road closure this Thursday

Road closedThere will be a public meeting to discuss the Stillwater River Road closure at the Nye Fire Hall on Thursday, July 30 at 6:30pm. All three Stillwater County Commissioners are expected to be in attendance.

Stillwater River Road was closed by a rockslide on June 3 and has remained closed for the last eight weeks. Despite increasing public discontent, Commissioners have not revealed plans for when, if ever, the road will be reopened. A recent notice in the Stillwater County News indicated that Commissioners have received a $1.4 million bid for repairs.

Location of rockslide on Stillwater River Road. Click to see on Google Maps

Location of rockslide on Stillwater River Road. Click to see on Google Maps

Stillwater River Road is an essential traffic artery, linking Absarokee to Nye and providing secondary access to the Stillwater Mine. It is critical that Commissioners hear from the public to make sure the road is reopened as quickly as possible, so please make plans to attend and send this notice along to friends and neighbors who might be impacted.

The rockslide and road closure are reminders of the fragility of our area, and how vulnerable we are to natural events. It is no coincidence that many of the residents impacted by the closure are also signers of a petition for a citizen initiated zone to protect the area from poorly regulated oil and gas drilling. That petition will be presented to County Commissioners later this year.

Stillwater rockslide looking upstreamQuestions you might consider asking the Commissioners (feel free to add others in comments):

  • What is the timetable for reopening the road: bids, work, completion?
  • What is the status of the rock wall adjacent to the road? What needs to be done to make it safe?
  • Why has it taken eight weeks to communicate plans to the public?
  • How will the County cover the cost of repairs? What options for state and federal relief have been explored?
  • Can the work be completed before winter?
  • If there are no plans to repair the road, what are the long-term implications for residents and County commerce?
  • If the Commissioners decide not to repair the road, how will residents be compensated for loss of property value, or loss of business?

Here is a video I shot this morning at the scene. Lots of wind and river noise in the background, so you can only hear on max volume.

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The resource curse: how dependence on oil and gas hurts communities in the long run

Two recent studies provide clear evidence of a well-understood fact: communities that base their economies on oil and gas may enjoy a short term boom, but they suffer in the long term in per capita income, educational attainment and crime rate.

Elizabeth Cascio

Elizabeth Cascio

Fracking boom increases high school dropout rate
The first study, by Elizabeth Cascio and Ayushi Narayan at Dartmouth University, is titled “Who needs a fracking education? The educational response to low-skill biased technological change” It documents that when a fracking boom hits a community,  high-paying low-skill jobs are created, mostly for young men. The result is that the dropout rate for 17 and 18 year old men increases significantly in those communities.

The study concludes that some students are hurting themselves in the long run by putting more weight on short-term higher income than the long-term benefits of education. As a result, those students wind up stuck at the bottom of the education and skills ladder, and their incomes will be reduced over the course of their lifetimes.

Wenlin Liu

Wenlin Liu

The impact of oil and gas on economic growth in Wyoming
The second study is a report by Wyoming state economist Wenlin Liu that shows the Wyoming economy is strong, except in counties that rely heavily on the oil and gas industry. The study looked at growth in different sectors from first quarter 2014 to first quarter 2015.

The report showed that every sector other than “mining,” which includes oil and gas, showed year over year growth, and that statewide unemployment has dropped to four percent. Personal income in the state grew 4.1% from year to year.

The mining sector showed a 2.4% loss of jobs, about 660 statewide.

“The simple reason was a dramatic decline in drilling rigs for oil and natural gas,” Liu told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “It’s not only oil prices, but natural gas prices too. And that’s directly affecting Wyoming’s economy.”

Counties that rely heavily on oil and gas saw large declines in taxable sales, with Niobrara County dropping 52.3%, Carbon County 14.7%, Sublette County 12.1% and Fremont County 9.6%.

“Hopefully these counties enjoyed the boom, and for budgeting purposes they don’t spend all their money when it booms,” Liu said.

By contrast, other counties with more diverse economies saw gains as high as 8.8%.

The long term impacts on communities
These studies should not come as a surprise. They are likely the first of many examples of the fallout from the decline in oil prices that began in June, 2014.

Six states

The study showed that in six states, including Montana, the longer the period of oil and gas exploration continues, the more negative the economic impact when it ends. You can see from the map that Carbon and Stillwater counties have primarily escaped these impacts, but we may not be so lucky during the next fracking boom.

The negative long-term impacts of increased reliance on oil and gas drilling are summarized in a study from the Headwaters Institute entitled   Oil and Gas Extraction as an Economic Development Strategy,” which looks at the longitudinal impacts of  drilling booms since the 1980s in six states, including Montana, from 1980 – 2011. The study was done at Montana State University.

The findings are stark. Counties that participated most heavily in the boom and specialized their economies most intensively in oil and gas saw greater declines in income, higher crime rates, and lower rates of educational attainment in the 1980 to 2011 period.

“The magnitude of this relationship is substantial,” the authors write, ” decreasing per capita income by as much as $7,000 for a county with high participation in the boom (greater than 8% of income from oil and gas) and long-term specialization (greater than 10 years) versus an identical county with only one year of specialization in oil and gas.”

This suggests that U.S. towns and counties that specialize too heavily in oil and gas development can indeed suffer from what’s known as the “resource curse.” They become too reliant on a single industry, and when the oil and gas stops flowing, the counties end up worse off than if they’d never enjoyed a surge of production in the first place:

  • For counties that experience increases in oil and gas production, per capita income declines with longer specialization.
  • The longer the duration of oil and gas specialization, the higher the crime rate.
  • Educational attainment declines with longer specialization.

We need to change the conversation
This data points clearly to the kind of local conversations we need to be having about oil and gas development. The lure of money flowing into a community is attractive — jobs, retail sales, rising home prices.

But for those who have an interest in maintaining the quality of life in a community for the long term — elected officials, families, local businesses — the conversation needs to go beyond the hell-bent pursuit of instant riches.

Communities cannot just allow development to occur based on the needs of oil and gas operators. The conversation needs to involve deciding how much, where, how quickly, with what limitations.

County Commissioners have this responsibility to lead this conversation through their power to set planning policies, through permitting and zoning. We need to insist that they do this. If not, citizens need to step forward to demand responsible policy making.

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Comparing the 2016 US presidential candidates on climate change

It won’t surprise you to know that there are stark differences between the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates with regard to their positions on climate change. Democrats accept the science on climate change and, for the most part, hold strong positions on what to do to combat it. Republicans have divergent views on the science, and what, if anything, government should do about it.

Since we are concerned on this site about policy related to oil and gas drilling, it’s worth shining a light on the positions of the candidates as an indication of the willingness of each to regulate drilling.


Hillary ClintonHillary Clinton: She clearly understands climate change. Last December she told the League of Conservation Voters, “The science of climate change is unforgiving, no matter what the deniers may say. Sea levels are rising; ice caps are melting; storms, droughts and wildfires are wreaking havoc. … If we act decisively now we can still head off the most catastrophic consequences.”

That said, it’s unlikely she will deviate much from the policies of the Obama Administration. She has said she supports the Clean Power Plan: “The unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost.”

On the other hand, she has also been aggressive in her support for fracking overseas. According to a Mother Jones article, “Under her leadership, the State Department worked closely with energy companies to spread fracking around the globe — part of a broader push to fight climate change, boost global energy supply, and undercut the power of adversaries such as Russia that use their energy resources as a cudgel.” She also “helped US firms clinch potentially lucrative shale concessions overseas, raising troubling questions about whose interests the program actually serves.”

Her environmental bona fides are shaky in other areas. As a Senator she supported offshore oil drilling, the Clinton Foundation takes in loads of oil money, and she avoids saying anything about the Keystone XL.

Like Obama, Clinton will likely be a mixed bag on climate change if elected.

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004Bernie Sanders: Mother Jones reports that he has one of the strongest climate change records in the Senate. According to rankings released by Climate Hawks Vote, a new super PAC, Sanders was the No. 1 climate leader in the Senate for the 113th Congress that ended in January.

“Sanders is very much among the top leaders,” says R.L. Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote. “He has a record of really strong advocacy for solar in particular.”

Among bills that Sanders has introduced are the Climate Protection Act, which would tax carbon and methane emissions and rebate three-fifths of the revenue to citizens, then invest the remainder in energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate resiliency; and the Residential Energy Savings Act to fund financing programs that would help residents retrofit their homes for energy efficiency.

Martin O'MalleyMartin O’Malley: The former governor of Maryland, a state that has been among the most aggressive in limiting fracking, O’Malley in June published a remarkable position paper on climate change that clearly establishes him as the most aggressive candidate. In the paper he says that “Clean energy represents the biggest business and job creation opportunity we’ve seen in a hundred years. Reliance on local, renewable energy sources also means a more secure nation and a more stable world.

“Given the grave threat that climate change poses to human life on our planet, we have not only a business imperative but a moral obligation to future generations to act immediately and aggressively.”

In the paper he calls for absolute opposition to fracking, to offshore and Arctic drilling, and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Jim WebbJim Webb: Webb deviates from typical Democratic positions on energy and warming. As Grist, a liberal environmental web site puts it, “Jim Webb sucks on climate change.”

He does not believe that reducing emissions should be a priority: “We need to be able to address a national energy strategy and then try to work on environmental efficiencies as part of that plan. We can’t just start with things like emission standards at a time when we’re at a crisis with the entire national energy policy.”

His view of an energy future: “I believe the way to go with coal is to get the technology to address the issues, rather than to put coal out of business. And I’m a strong believer, from the time that I was 18 years old, in the advantages of nuclear power.”


The Republicans fall into several camps. Only two candidates have clearly stated that they believe that humans are responsible for climate change, four have stated categorically that they don’t believe in climate change, and the rest are casting about, trying to find a position that will be acceptable to primary voters without moving them too far out of the mainstream to survive in November.

We’ll group them by their views.

Climate science believers

Graham-080106-18270- 0005Lindsey Graham: Graham has been clear that he is a believer in climate change. In an interview last month he said, “If I’m president of the United States, we’re going to address climate change, CO2 emissions in a business-friendly way. I do believe that climate change is real.”

This week he told Late Night host Seth Meyers, “I’m not a scientist, but here’s the problem I’ve got with some people in my party: when you ask the scientists what’s going on, why don’t you believe them? If I went to 10 doctors and nine said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna die,’ and one says ‘You’re fine,’ why would I believe the one guy?”

However, his plan for what to do about it is short on specifics: “We must adopt economically sound principles for reducing negative impacts on the environment and becoming better stewards of God’s creation.  This can be achieved through greater efficiency, less waste, better use of technology, and more cost-effective measures.  All of these efforts will contribute both to a cleaner environment and greater energy resources.”

Chris ChristieChris Christie: In May, Chris Christie told MSNBC, “I think global warming is real. I don’t think that’s deniable, and I do think human activity contributes to it.”

“The question,” says Christie, “is what we do to deal with it.” The US “can’t be acting unilaterally…when folks in China are doing things to the environment that would never be done in our country.”

From his record in New Jersey it’s not clear what if anything he would do about it. Christie closed his state’s Office of Climate Change and Energy and withdrew New Jersey from RGGI, a regional carbon reduction program

The flat out deniers

Ben Carson: “There’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on,” he said in Iowa. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that we have an obligation and a responsibility to protect our environment.” When asked about the scientific consensus on global warming, he said, “You can ask it several different ways, but my answer is going to be the same. We may be warming. We may be cooling.”

With regard to the Keystone Pipeline, he has said, “It’s perfectly safe, so I can’t really see a good reason not to do it.”

Mike HuckabeeMike Huckabee: On Meet the Press in June, Huckabee said, “I know that when I was in college I was being taught that if we didn’t act very quickly, that we were going to be entering a global freezing. Go back and look at the covers of Time and Newsweek from the early ’70s. And we were told that if we didn’t do something by 1980, we’d be popsicles. Now we’re told that we’re all burning up. Science is not as settled on that as it is on some things.”

This is Huckabee’s third run for the Oval Office, so it’s worth noting that in 2007, his position was “climate change is here, it’s real.”

Ted CruzTed Cruz: Last March, Cruz told The Texas Tribune, “On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate. What do they do? They scream, ‘You’re a denier.’ They brand you a heretic. Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

“I’m a big believer that we should follow the science, and follow the evidence. If you look at global warming alarmists, they don’t like to look at the actual facts and the data. The satellite data demonstrate that there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years. Now that’s a real problem for the global warming alarmists. Because all those computer models on which this whole issue is based predicted significant warming, and yet the satellite data show it ain’t happening.”

Marco RubioMarco Rubio: As reported by Politifact, in a 2014 interview with ABC News, Rubio stated,  “‘Our climate is always evolving and natural disasters have always existed.’ He doesn’t believe that ‘human activity’ is causing the extreme changes to climate change ‘the way these scientists are portraying it.’ He does not support legislation to ameliorate what has been laid out as industrial causes, seeing them as ‘destroy[ing]” the economy.”

Like Huckabee, his position has “evolved” over time. In 2007 he almost echoed Martin O’Malley when he said, “Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago,” he said. “Today, Florida has the opportunity to pursue bold energy policies, not just because they’re good for our environment, but because people can actually make money doing it. This nation and ultimately the world is headed toward emission caps and energy diversification.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to National Right to Life ConventionRick Perry: Talking to the Christian Science Monitor in June about oil and gas exploration and the Keystone XL, Perry said, “I don’t believe that we have the settled science by any sense of the imagination to stop that kind of economic opportunity.”

He even rejected the concept of carbon emissions contributing to warming, opining, “Calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice the country, and I believe a disservice to the world.”

This is the same guy who couldn’t remember he wanted to cut the Department of Energy in his last go-round in 2012.

Sitting somewhere in the middle, but it’s hard to tell exactly where

Jeb BushJeb Bush: Bush seems to be following the Mitt Romney strategy of saying whatever you need to say to get the nomination, then coming up with a viable strategy for the general election:

  • In April, he said the US needs “to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions.”
  • In May, he backtracked, commenting, “For the people to say the science is decided on this is really arrogant, to be honest with you.”
  • In June, Bush, a Catholic, disagreed with Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, saying “”I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”
  • A few days later, he issued a vague call for action: “I live in Miami, a place where this will have an impact over the long haul. And I think we need to develop a consensus about how to approach this without hollowing out our industrial core, without taking jobs away from people, without creating more hardship for the middle class of this country,” he said. “I believe there are technological solutions for just about everything, and I’m sure there’s one for this as well.”

Expect that if he gets the nomination, he’ll find a middle position of paying lip service to climate change without a plan to do anything about it.

Rick SantorumRick Santorum: Last January, Santorum appeared on MSNBC’s State of the Union, and said, “Is the climate warming? Clearly over the past, you know, 15 or 20 years the question is yes. The question is, is man having a significant impact on that, number one. And number two, and this is even more important than the first, is there anything we can do about it? And the answer is,…clearly, no. Even folks who accept all of the science by the alarmists on the other side, recognize that everything that’s being considered by the United States will have almost – well, not almost, will have zero impact on it given what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

In June, he weighed in on the Pope’s enclyclical: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality. When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, I think the church is not as forceful and credible.”

Bobby JindalBobby Jindal: Jindal believes that “human activity is having an impact on the climate,” but he told the Heritage Foundation last fall that global warming is being used by the Obama Administration as a “Trojan horse…to come in and make changes to our economy that they would otherwise want to make….It’s an excuse for the government to come in and try to tell us what kind of homes we live in, what kind of cars we drive, what kind of lifestyles we can enjoy. It’s an excuse for some who never liked free-market economies, who never liked rapid economic growth.”

Jindal’s energy plan, Organizing Around Abundance: Making America an Energy Superpower , makes the case for rolling back energy regulations and environmental protections, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing the renewable fuel standard, allowing oil and gas exports and opening federal land to drilling.

Not really a recipe for warming reduction.

CarlyFiorinaCarly Fiorina: Fiorina’s position is close to Christie’s, but she stops short of saying unequivocally that global warming is caused by humans. She agrees with Christie in saying that we should not act unilaterally when other countries are not cutting back on carbon emissions. In an October, 2014 op ed in the Washington Post she said,

“When discussing climate, scientists may agree that some policy change is warranted, but they also agree that action by a single state or nation will make little difference. China and India are the biggest and third-biggest producers, respectively, of carbon dioxide emissions, and their leaders were absent from the recent U.N. Climate Summit. At a time when American families are still recovering from joblessness and the recession, should the United States commit to an energy policy that puts U.S. jobs, and the economy, at risk?”

Rand PaulRand Paul: Despite being one of only 15 Republican Senators to vote for a resolution last January that said global warming is real and humans contribute to it, two months later he voted against an amendment saying that climate change is real and caused by human activity and that Congress must cut carbon pollution.

In terms of policy, Paul has consistently been against action to reduce our carbon footprint.

Last year he told David Axelrod that the earth goes through periods of time when the climate changes, but he’s “not sure anybody exactly knows why. He said the science behind climate change is “not conclusive,” and that people who tie extreme weather to climate change are ignorant.

In a class by himself

Donald TrumpDonald Trump: Appearing on Hannity in June, Trump said, well, something. “I’m not a believer in manmade — look, this planet is so massive. And when I hear Obama saying that climate change is the number one problem it is just madness. And by the way it started this global cooling, I mean we went through global warming…they don’t even know. Now they just call it — no, they call it extreme weather.”

We’ll let The Donald have the last word. It’s going to be a long road to November 2016.

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BREAKING. Decision in Silvertip Zone case (video)

Judge Blair Jones. Billings Gazette photo.

Judge Blair Jones’ narrow ruling left other issues undecided. Billings Gazette photo.

In a narrow ruling that demonstrates how government at all levels conspires to deprive small landowners of their rights, Judge Blair Jones ruled last week that:

  • The Silvertip Zone petition did not meet Carbon County standards that had been established by the Commissioners in 2009, and
  • The Carbon County Commissioners actions in waiving their own requirements were illegal.

The practical result of these rulings is that all actions with regard to this petition are void, the suit is dismissed, and the petitioners need to either appeal the decision or start over once again and file new petitions that meet the County standards.

In addition, the legal aspects of the Commissioners’ original ruling that the petitioners hoped to clarify, particularly the Commissioners’ rejection of the zone because of what the petitioners believe was an illegal protest, were not part of Judge Jones’ ruling and will need to be decided in another courtroom on another day.

Resolution 2009-16
To understand why it is practically impossible for landowners to establish a citizen initiated zone, let’s take a look at Carbon County Resolution 2009-16, signed by current Commissioner John Prinkki on November 30, 2009. The resolution establishes “the approved process for the certification of “Part One” zoning petitions submitted in Carbon County, Montana, pursuant to §76-2-101, Mont. Code Ann.”

John Prinkki. Photo credit: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

John Prinkki signed the resolution, then neglected to follow it. Photo credit: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

Here are the major requirements for citizen initiated zoning petitions detailed in the resolution:

  • a map prepared by a certified land surveyor indicating the boundaries of the areas of land to be included in the district, and marking the names of the landowners
  • signature pages that included a legal description of the signator’s real property
  • an ownership report from a title company, setting forth the status of a title to a parcel of real property
  • an affidavit by all persons circulating petition signature pages attesting they collected those signatures, or each signature must be notarized

So what did the petitioners do wrong?
Now let’s go back and look at the entire history of this zoning petition, and see why the petitioners are in this position.

The items below have all been documented on this site, so you can click on the links below to go through all the gory details for verification.

1. On August 18, 2014, Silvertip landowners submitted petitions to the Carbon County Commissioners to establish a citizen initiated zone in the Belfry area. The petitions were verified and accepted by the Commissioners. It is important to note that both the Commissioners and the petitioners were aware of Carbon County Resolution 2009-16, and the petitioners were specifically told that the petitions were acceptable to the County. The petitions were certified by the County.

2. There were several public meetings and opportunities for everyone involved to have a chance to present a case regarding the proposed zone. You can read about these meetings and watch video here, here, here and here.

A well attended public meeting at Belfry School

A well attended public meeting at Belfry School

3. On September 18, 2014, Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon provided feedback to the Commissioners. He advised them not to take action on the petition for one primary reason: the law requires that the land in a citizen-initiated zone be contiguous, and the Silvertip Zone defined in the petition was not a single contiguous parcel.

4. Undeterred, the petitioners went back and redefined the boundaries of the zone to answer Nixon’s objection, and resubmitted the petitions on November 20. The petitions were signed by all but one of the original landowners within the boundaries of the zone. Again, the petitioners were told by Carbon County that the petitions met County standards, and they were certified.

5. On December 15, at a meeting in Red Lodge, Carbon County Commissioners voted to move forward to create the Silvertip Zone in Belfry. The Commissioners agreed that the zone was “in the public interest and convenience for public health, safety and welfare, and for the public infrastructure.”

6. On January 15, 2015, in a stunning reversal that ignored the will of the majority for the opinion of a small minority, the Commissioners withdrew their motion to accept the petitions to form the Silvertip Zone.  Commissioner John Prinkki explained the move by saying, “The petition fails. As you know, under Section 5, because of the protest, we couldn’t move forward with this if we wanted to. It fails for that fact alone.” The rejection is clearly illegal, based on a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling. It is important to note that the County did not hold the protestors to any of the standards of 2009-16. Protests were allowed by email, with no certification required.

7. Stymied at every step, on February 13 Silvertip landowners filed a legal challenge to the Commissioners’ ruling in state district court in Red Lodge.

8. A hearing was held on June 4 in Red Lodge before Judge Blair Jones in the case of Martinell, et al,  v. Board of County Commissioners of Carbon County, et al.

9. On July 8, Judge Jones issued his decision, essentially saying that the County Commissioners failure to adhere to their own standards for accepting citizen initiated zoning petitions rendered the whole process, with all the work done by the petitioners to assert their rights on their own properties, meaningless.

In summary: here’s what happened and here’s what’s next
If you don’t want to wade through the details, here’s what happened in a nutshell: The Silvertip landowners submitted petitions that were approved and certified. The Carbon County Commissioners were rewarded by Judge Jones for their failure to follow their own rules and policies. Their reward was the dismissal of the suit against them.

The Silvertip landowners, after nearly a year of attempting to follow all the provisions of law, still cannot take advantage of the provisions of Montana law that enable them to protect their land, the water they need for their livelihoods and their health.

The landowners now have two options:

1. They can regroup, recollect petitions, and resubmit to the County Commissioners. Restarting the process would leave them open to the same sort of Commissioner misbehavior they have experienced the last time they submitted.

2. They can appeal Judge Jones’ decision, and go to the Montana Supreme Court to make sure that the legal protections against a small group of protesting landowners that are afforded in other types of zoning, are applied to citizen initiated zoning as well.

Regardless of which path they choose, you can expect that there’s no quit in this group of dedicated people. Nobody promised this would be easy.

We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their willingness to fight for our rights.

Here’s video of the hearing last month before Judge Jones that led to the ruling. Thanks to an extremely dedicated local volunteer for investing the time to shoot the videotape and transfer it to disk.

Judge Blair Jones’ ruling
Carbon County Resolution 2009-16, establishing requirements for citizen initiated zoning petitions
Timeline of events leading to legal action by Silvertip landowners, with videos of all related public meetings
FAQ: What the petitioners want

Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Learning opportunity: Webinar on challenges of life in the Bakken, July 23

Most of us will never visit the Bakken. We read the news stories, hear the reports of spills and train explosions and lives changed forever, and scratch our heads as oil executives tell us that fracking is essential to a thriving national economy.

register_now_button_blueOn Thursday, July 23 from 10-11 am Mountain, Earthworks will help you understand firsthand what life in the Bakken is like. They’ll be hosting a one-hour webinar on the challenges of living in the Bakken, the national implications of the North Dakota oil boom, and what you can do to help, featuring people who have experienced the boom and bust, with all its attendant issues.  Registration required; click on the register button to sign up.

Don Morrison – Executive Director, Dakota Resource Council
Wayde Schafer – Sierra Club, North Dakota
Theodora Bird Bear – Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, North Dakota
Martin Mock – Senior Pastor, First Lutheran Church, Williston, North Dakota

Webinar presentersModerators
Deb Thomas, Earthworks and
Jennifer Goldman, Earthworks

Short panel presentations will be followed by a Q&A session.

Definitely worth an hour of your time.

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Don’t miss! Award winning film director Andrew Renzi in Absarokee, July 26

You won’t want to miss out on the Stillwater Protective Association’s remarkable annual summer event, to be held at the Anipro Event Center south of Absarokee on Sunday, July 26.

spa_RSVPDirector Andrew Renzi, whose award-winning film Fishtail was nominated as Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year, will be on hand to show clips from the film, tell the story behind his depiction of local ranching life, and answer your questions.

Locally sourced heavy hors d’oeuvres from Wild Flower Kitchen and drinks will be served. There will also be a live and silent auction, and a wine raffle. Doors open at 4:00, and the event begins at 4:30.

Tickets are $30 if reserved by July 19, or $35 at the door. Children under 12 are free.

The event supports the work of the Stillwater Protective Association (SPA), an organization formed in 1975 to protect, preserve, and safeguard the quality of air, water, land, and life in the Stillwater Valley. SPA is leading the fight in Stillwater County to protect the community from unregulated oil and gas activity, and deserves your support.

Fishtail Basin Ranch3About the film
Set on the Fishtail Basin Ranch on Fiddler Creek along the Beartooth Front, Fishtail is the story of a local way of life. Director Andrew Renzi visited this ranch, owned by the Abbott family, numerous times and worked there one summer when he was in high school.

Inspired by the experience, Renzi and childhood friend Tylee Abbott decided to collaborate to produce a documentary on the Montana ranching way of life. Andrew was the storyteller and director, following Tylee and ranch manager Brian Young for four days during calving season with a 50-pound, 16mm camera.

Fishtail Basin Ranch1Here’s how reviewer Joshua Handler describes the 70 minute film:

“The only narration is a beautiful, rough recording of Harry Dean Stanton reading poetry…. I was mesmerized throughout. The 16MM cinematography gives the film the feel of a classic western. Its faded colors and film grain make this an ode to a time gone by.

Fishtail Basin Ranch2“These cowboys are among the last of their kind. They are a group who thrived 150 years ago but have slowly been dying. Renzi’s film captures this sense of melancholy through Stanton’s narration and the cinematography, but it is also a testament to those who live and love this rough way of life. These men rise at sunrise and work through the day caring for these animals.  Their job is their life.

“The sun-drenched, mystical cinematography by Joe Anderson ranks among the best I’ve seen this year.”

(Photos above from Fishtail Basin Ranch tumblr. You can click to enlarge.)

Related: Read my original post on this film by clicking here.

Get directions to the Anipro Center. (Enter your address at the prompt. Note that Google Maps lists the Center as “Rick Young Auctioneer”.)

Fishtail trailer:

Posted in Community Organization | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

There have been 66 oil-related spills and 8 oil fires in Montana so far this year

Click to read BOGC report. Photo: Montana Board of Oil and Gas
Click to read BOGC report. Photo: Montana Board of Oil and Gas

According to data published by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), in 2015 there have been a total of 74 “undesirable” oil-related incidents in Montana through June 22. Of these, 66 were spills of oil and/or particulate water, and eight were fires. According to the report, about half of the spills were contained on the well pad, but the other half migrated beyond the pad. You can read the report by clicking the graphic at right (Microsoft Excel required).

Nearly all of the incidents occurred in the Bakken in northeast Montana, with a handful occurring in Toole and Blaine counties in the northern part of the state.

According to John Gizicki, BOGC Compliance Specialist, operators are required to report incidents as follows:

  • Spills greater than 50 barrels: Immediate notice to BOGC and written report
  • Spills between 10 and 49 barrels: Written report only
  • Spill of any size not contained at the well pad: Written report only
  • Any fire: Written report only

The complete undesirable incident reporting rules can be found in the Administrative Rules of Montana, Section 36.22.1103.

Cleaning up an oil spill on the Blackfeet Reservation. Photo: Associated Press

Cleaning up an oil spill on the Blackfeet Reservation. Photo: Associated Press

By my count, 16 of the incidents exceeded 50 barrels. The largest spill was 3500 barrels, on April 10 in Fallon County. Some of the spills listed on the report were not required to be reported because they were less than 10 barrels and were contained on the well pad, but Gizicki indicated that “some companies report everything.”

It is unknown how many companies comply with Montana rules, and whether there are any spills that went unreported.

This is why we need to act
By my calculation, 74 incidents in less than six months is about three incidents a week. More than one spill per week is not contained on the well pad, meaning the spill leaks into the soil.

No one who follows oil and gas issues should be surprised by the frequency of these incidents. Oil drilling is a dirty business.

But landowners should be extremely concerned about the failure of the state to protect them from the dangers of drilling. As we have often documented, the state of Montana does a poor job of reigning in the oil companies:

This is why local citizens in Carbon and Stillwater counties are fighting for local regulation of oil and gas activities through a process called citizen initiated zoning. Residents of the Silvertip Zone in Belfry have filed suit against the Carbon County Commissioners to assert their right to form a zone, and residents in Stillwater County will soon be presenting over 300 signatures from local landowners to establish a zone in the Nye area.

For information on what a citizen initiated zone would do, click here.

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Follow up on last week’s setback hearings at the Montana Board of Oil and Gas

Linda Nelson, BOGC Chair, at the hearings last week. Photo:

Linda Nelson, BOGC Chair, at the hearings last week. Photo:

A follow up on the June 23 public session at the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) on setbacks of oil and gas wells from occupied buildings and water sources.

After a two-hour special hearing with significant testimony, the BOGC said it would decide whether to pursue a setback rule making process at its meeting in August. That meeting will be held on Thursday, August 13 in Billings.

Click here to read a news report on the hearings with video.

Jessica Sena, representing the Montana Petroleum Association, opposes any setback regulations. Photo:

Jessica Sena, representing the Montana Petroleum Association, opposed any setback regulations.  Photo:

If you haven’t familiarized yourself with the issue of setbacks, I recommend you read this post. I expect there will be additional opportunity for public input on the issue later this summer.

The following letter to the editor from Cindy Webber of Big Timber appeared in the June 28 edition of the Billings Gazette:

Oil and gas setback rule needed to protect Montana homeowners
I sincerely hope that the Montana Board of Oil and Gas will decide to begin rule making on setback requirements, as it was asked to do on June 24. Setback requirements restrict oil and gas wells from being placed too close to residences or water sources, in order to strike an equitable balance between development and landowner protections.

Bainsville rancher Pat Wilson testified, "According to current Montana law, it could practically be on their doorstep. I mean we don't have a rule."

Bainsville rancher Pat Wilson testified, “According to current Montana law, a well could practically be on their doorstep. I mean we don’t have a rule.”

Currently, Montana has no setback requirements on private land. In contrast, our neighboring states of Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado require a setback of 500 feet between an oil and gas well and residences. On federal land, the Bureau of Land Management prohibits oil and gas development within one-quarter mile (1,320 feet) of an occupied dwelling.

Why are setbacks necessary? First, split estate situations are common throughout the West — one person owns the mineral rights and another owns the surface land. Thus, residents may have no say about oil and gas development on their land. Montanans should not have to hire a lawyer to protect their land.

Secondly, studies have shown that the safest distance between a home and an oil well is one-quarter mile. Negative impacts from oil rigs include noise and light pollution, harmful emissions such as methane or diesel fumes, truck traffic and water contamination.

Only with citizen input can we find a Montana solution that adequately protects landowners.

Cindy Webber
Big Timber

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