Video of the Carbon County Commissioners Meeting, 8/18/2014

For those of you who couldn’t make yesterday’s meeting, here is a video of the proceedings.

VimeoYou can view the video in full screen mode by clicking on the icon to the left of the word “Vimeo” in the bottom right corner of the viewer.

Silvertip organic farmer Bonnie Martinell presents the zone. Click to enlarge.

Silvertip organic farmer Bonnie Martinell presents the zone. Click to enlarge.

I received this early Tuesday morning, so in the interest of getting it online I won’t offer much commentary, but I’ll leave you with an overall impression based on conversations with several of the attendees:

The outcome of the meeting was not a strong yea or nay, but the beginning of a process that will take some time. Bonnie Martinell did a great job of presenting the case for a Silvertip zone. Two of the three Commissioners were in attendance, and both asked questions and raised objections and concerns, as did the County Attorney and the County Planner.

The next task will be for the petitioners to present a zoning document, which should happen this week. This document will describe the specific regulations requested for the zone. The Commission will review the signatures and the document, and will come back next month with a response,

L toR: Doug Tucker, County Commissioner; Alex Nixon, County Attorney; Brent Moore, County Planner; John Prinkki, County Commissioner. Click to enlarge.

L toR: Doug Tucker, County Commissioner; Alex Nixon, County Attorney; Brent Moore, County Planner; John Prinkki, County Commissioner. Click to enlarge.

Much more to come — this is going to take patience and perseverance. Thanks to all those who attended. It was a huge turnout for a public meeting in Red Lodge. It will be important to keep up this level of support for the petitioners as we go forward.

Action items:

  • Contact the Carbon County Commissioners to let them know you support the Silvertip Zone. Key points to include: the Silvertip zone is necessary to enable farmers and ranchers in Carbon County protect their land, their water, and their livelihoods. The zone will provide protections that state and federal law do not provide. It enables mineral rights holders to get their oil, but to do it in a way that is fair for everyone involved.
    • The County Commissioners are John Prinkki, John Grewell, and Doug Tucker
    • Their email address is commissioners@co.carbon.mt.us
    • The County Commissioners phone is 446-1595

Public discussion. Click to enlarge.

Public discussion. Click to enlarge.

NEW! Check out Ed Kemmick’s coverage of the meeting over at lastbestnews.com

NEW 8/20/14! Billings Gazette coverage by Tom Lutey

Thanks to Jay West of Red Lodge for the video
Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Overflow crowd at the Carbon County Commissioners meeting

10:30am. The meeting is just starting, and the room is overflowing. If you get this via email, click on the title of the post to view the video.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Meeting today in Red Lodge! Frequently Asked Questions about the Silvertip citizen-initiated zone

This morning residents of the Silvertip community in Belfry will be presenting a zoning petition to the Carbon County Commission. Please go to support them if you can (details here).

The petition is the result of months of hard work by a local grass roots group — community organizing, education, legal research, and much more from tireless volunteers.

Today we have a list of frequently asked questions about the petition to help you understand exactly what it is the Silvertip residents are asking for. You can either page through the questions or click on an individual question to retrieve the answer. (If you click on the individual question, use the back arrow to get back to the list of questions. Note to Google Chrome users: this function doesn’t work perfectly in that browser.)

Frequently asked questions

Carbon County CommissionersWhat exactly is happening in Carbon County?
How is this authorized by state law?
What are the requirements for a special district?
How will the special zone be administered?
What happens once the petition is submitted?
Why is this zone necessary?
What are the Silvertip landowners asking for?
What are highest and best management practices?
Why should the oil and gas operator have to pay for testing of water, air and soil?
Isn’t this an unnecessary government intrusion into private property rights?
There are a lot of federal laws that protect us against air and water pollution. Aren’t these enough to keep us safe?
Energy Corporation of America (ECA) is a large oil and gas company with years of operating experience. Why not just let rely on them to be professional stewards of our land and water?
What about the mineral rights holders? Isn’t it fair for them to be able to get their oil out of the ground?
I have read that fracking is a 50 year old mature technology that is completely safe, and that there has never been a documented case of water contamination due to fracking. Are claims of environmental risk just scare tactics tactic by environmental activists?
What are the risks of being close to a fracked well?
Isn’t this all theoretical? Are there really documented cases of these impacts to people who live near oil and gas wells?
The oil and gas industry says that environmentalists use scare tactics instead of facts to try to block oil and gas drilling. Is that true?
What can I do to help?
How do I find out more?

Q. What exactly is happening in Carbon County?
A. A group of landowners in the Silvertip area around the Belfry well have signed a petition asking the Carbon County Commission to create a special zone with rules for oil and gas drilling.

Q. How is this authorized by state law?
A. In 1963, the Montana legislature adopted Mont. Code Ann. § 76-2-209 as part of the Montana Zoning and Planning Act (MZPA). This law effectively prohibits local governments from “prevent(ing) the complete use, development or recovery of any mineral, forest, or agricultural resource.”

This is similar to laws in other Western states. The owners of natural resource rights have a protected ability to get those resources out of the ground.

However, Montana law provides for local control in Mont. Code Ann. 76-2-101: “Whenever the public interest or convenience may require and upon petition of 60% of the affected real property owners in the proposed district, the board of county commissioners may create a planning and zoning district and appoint a planning and zoning commission” to administer the district. This is what the Silvertip residents are asking the Commissioners to do.

Q. What are the requirements for establishing a special district?
A. Citizens can request a special zone when 60% of the landowners in the zone sign a petition requesting it. This petition then goes to the County Commissioners, who, after a public hearing, must agree to move forward and create a planning and zoning commission (PAZC).

Q. How will the special zoning district be administered?
A. If the County Commission accepts the zone, it will set up a special Planning and Zoning Commission to administer the policies and procedures of the zone. The Commission will be comprised of two local residents of the zone, the three County Commissioners, and two elected officials.

Q. What happens once the petition is submitted?
A. The Carbon County staff will look at all the documentation submitted by the Silvertip residents, and verify that signatures are properly collected and the land to be included in the zone is properly defined. The Commissioners then have 15 days to set up a public hearing to approve the zoning request and move forward to set up a Planning and Zoning Commission for the district.

Q. Why is this zone necessary?
A. It is necessary because federal and state laws and regulatory bodies like the Montana Board of Oil and Gas are weighted far in favor of oil and gas operators. These laws deprive local landowners of their rights, resulting in loss of property value, the risk of water contamination, and dangers to personal health. Local efforts are the only way for landowners to level the playing field.

A recent photo of the Belfry well

A recent photo of the Belfry well

Q. What are the Silvertip landowners asking for?
A. The residents are requesting that a special zone be established that requires oil and gas operators to adhere to the highest and best management practices in conducting oil and gas operations within the district. They are not asking for a moratorium. They are asking only that their property, water and health be protected from unnecessary damage due to oil and gas operations.

Q. What are highest and best management practices?
A. The “highest and best management practices” for the operation of a well will ultimately be determined by the planning and zoning committee. Below are some exemplary standards:

  1. Minimum spacing. Well bores must be at least a mile apart.
  2. Well design. Wells must be designed using a closed-loop system, with no holding or reserve pits or ponds permitted.
  3. Flaring. Flaring (burning off natural gas) from the well bore is not permitted, except when necessary to protect public health and safety, and well bore venting or any other atmospheric discharge is to be reduced to the maximum extent possible.
  4. Placement of well pads. Well pads should be located to minimize impacts to the visual and scenic views of the surrounding landscape.
  5. Noise. Sound suppression for any equipment making significant noise, including compressors, so that the noise level, at any time of operations, does not exceed on average during a twenty-four (24) hour period 78 dB and does not at any time exceed 85 dB.
  6. Water quality testing. Comprehensive water testing at least once every three months during the period of active well operation, and at least once a year for the next 20 years following completion for every water well within three miles of each well bore. The testing is to be done at the expense of the oil and gas operator, and the results must be provided to the PAZC, which shall publish the results on a public web site. Testing must be conducted by an independent Montana state licensed engineer.
  7. Air quality testing. Comprehensive air quality testing at least once every three months during the period of active well operation, and at least once a year for the next three years following completion at sites within two miles of each well bore. The testing is to be done at the expense of the oil and gas operator, and the results must be provided to the PAZC, which shall publish the results on a public web site. Testing must be conducted by an independent Montana state licensed engineer.
  8. Soil testing.Comprehensive soil quality testing at least once every three months during the period of active well operation, and at least once a year for the next three years following completion at sites within a two mile radius of each well bore, and at all points along the surface above the (horizontal) well. The testing is to be done at the expense of the oil and gas operator, and the results must be provided to the PAZC, which shall publish the results on a public web site. Testing must be conducted by an independent person qualified to evaluate the soil quality.

Bret Smelser, Board of Oil and Gas member, who voted against protections proposed by Silvertip community members

Bret Smelser, Board of Oil and Gas member and ex-Mayor of Sidney, who voted against protections proposed by Silvertip community members

Q. Doesn’t Montana law Provide for the standards above?
A. No. The state of Montana provides insufficient regulatory support for important protection, such as water quality and quantity, air quality, and public health. In addition, the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), the primary state agency responsible for permitting wells, is designed to promote the drilling of wells for profit. What’s more, the residents of the Silvertip area appealed to the BOGC before the Belfry well was permitted, but there were no substantive modifications made to the permit based on their concerns.

Q. Why should the oil and gas operator have to pay for testing of water, air and soil?
A. This is a fundamental issue of fairness.The impact of drilling is not confined to the specific lot where the well is located. Water, air and soil can be contaminated in nearby land that has no connection to the drilling. Should a landowner with little financial stake in the drilling have to pay thousands of dollars for this testing even if he receives minimal compensation from oil extraction? If the testing isn’t supervised, there is no way to determine whether any contamination resulted from the drilling or another source, so the landowner will have to pay for the cleanup without opportunity to receive any compensation for damages.

No, the cost of determining whether there has been environmental damage should be a cost of doing business for the oil and gas operator. It is only in this way that the land, water and air can be protected after they leave.

Q. Isn’t this an unnecessary government intrusion into private property rights?
A. The government has already intruded into private property rights by creating laws that make mineral rights dominant over surface rights. This requires the surface owner to give up use of his land without permission, and can put the owner in danger of losing property value, of being in violation of mortgage covenants or not being able to get insurance.

Q. There are a lot of federal laws that protect us against air and water pollution. Aren’t these enough to keep us safe?
A. Between 1970 and 1990 there were many federal laws designed to protect our environment. Since that time the oil and gas industry has been successful in becoming exempt in very significant ways from these laws. An example is the Halliburton Loophole, passed in the Energy Act of 2005, which exempts oil and gas from having to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, which are now protected as “trade secrets.” Oil and gas is also exempted from basic environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Aire Act, Clean Water Act, and NEPA.

Q. Energy Corporation of America (ECA) is a large oil and gas company with years of operating experience. Why not just let rely on them to be professional stewards of our land and water?
A. It’s true that ECA has a long history as an oil and gas operator. Unfortunately that history is full of compliance violations and fines in other states. In Pennsylvania, which keeps detailed records and posts them online, ECA has had 66 inspections with violations, 90 separate violations, and 55 enforcement actions, and been levied over $80,000 in fines. You can download a copy of the report to see for yourself.

ECA vendor taking water illegally near Belfry well

ECA vendor taking water illegally near Belfry well

And when ECA began drilling the well at the Belfry site in June, they immediately got involved with a vendor who took water illegally from a local source and had to be shut down by the Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation, which received many calls and emails from vigilant local residents.

This is a company that clearly regards spills, leaks and fines as a cost of doing business. It is entirely reasonable for landowners near this well to want to establish legal measures to protect themselves.

Q. What about the mineral rights holders? Isn’t it fair for them to be able to get their oil out of the ground?
A. There is nothing in this petition that keeps mineral rights holders from extracting their oil. All this special district would do is require that ECA and other operators follow highest and best management practices, and that their compliance with those practices be monitored and enforced locally. As long as operators follow these practices, the mineral rights holder will be able to extract oil.

Q. I have read that fracking is a 50 year old mature technology that is completely safe, and that there has never been a documented case of water contamination due to fracking. Are claims of environmental risk just scare tactics by environmental activists?
A. While it is true that fracking technology, which involves the injection of toxic chemicals into rock, has been used for many years, it is the use of the newer technology of horizontal drilling that has greatly expanded the risk for residents living near a well or above a horizontal bore hole. These advances in technology have brought the heavy industry of oil and gas drilling closer and closer to where people live. Today over 15 million people in the United States live within a mile of an oil and gas well, leaving them exposed to these risks.

A search on this blog of the term “water contamination” will lead you to plenty of documented material. You can also look at the Zotero database, which provides plenty of peer-reviewed scientific studies that document water contamination.

Q. What are the risks of being close to a fracked well?

A. There are many different kinds of risks:

  • Fracking is highly water intensive. A single well requires over 2 million gallons of fresh water that is then treated with chemicals. This water can never be reused or returned to the hydrologic system, so it is gone forever. In Montana as in many areas of the country, fresh water is scarce. This is not an idle concern. When the Belfry well was first drilled, ECA worked with a contractor who used local water without a water right.
  • Wastewater from fracking is stored in injection wells or storage facilities. There are many documented cases of water leaking out of storage and migrating into groundwater. ECA has been cited for improperly lined storage pits in Pennsylvania. In Belfry the pit is in a clear drainage that experiences regular spring gully washers, running through neighboring farms and ranches. Local residents brought this up to the Board of Oil and Gas without being able to get any protections in the permit.
  • Flaring in the Bakken makes it appear as bright as Minneapolis from space

    Flaring in the Bakken makes it appear as bright as Minneapolis from space

    Methane, nitrous oxide and other compounds can leak from the well site into the air, or be intentionally “flared” or burned off, creating dangerous exposure for local residents. In a recent case, a jury awarded $2.9 million to a family that suffered severe negative health effects because of being exposed to poor air quality caused by living close to a well. If you drive up Silvertip Road to Elk Basin, where wells are currently operating, you can smell the pungent odor of these compounds.

  • Drilling is a 24×7 activity. Activity requires light around the clock and is very noisy, creating disturbances for local residents, and potentially harming livestock and crops.
  • Drilling causes loss of habitat for wildlife. A single well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres of vegetation, causing habitat to be lost or fragmented.
  • Blowouts and spills often occur at the well site, causing chemicals to be emitted into the air and leak into the ground. This endangers groundwater and the health of people near the well.
  • Wells require massive truck transport for supply of materials and water transport. A single well can require 800 individual truck runs. The truck runs tear up roads, and cause dust and other pollution.
  • Well casing failure is a frequent cause of leakage, which can result in aquifer and groundwater contamination.

The diagram below depicts these sources of risk:

Causes of environmental damage due to fracking. Adapted from Frontiers in Ecology and the   Environment and Princeton University PR Department.

Causes of environmental damage due to fracking. Adapted from Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and Princeton University PR Department.

Q. Isn’t this all theoretical? Are there really documented cases of these impacts to people who live near oil and gas wells?
A. You can read many documented personal stories on this site. These are real people whose lives have been affected by oil and gas drilling on or near their properties.

Q. The oil and gas industry says that environmentalists use scare tactics instead of facts to try to block oil and gas drilling. Is that true?
A. Well, these FAQs provide many links for you to see for yourself what’s true. If you read them carefully, you won’t see scare tactics, just a lot of facts. You also won’t see an attempt to block oil and gas drilling. What the Silvertip residents want is fairness for their community — an opportunity to preserve property, water, and a way of life. You should want that too. What has the oil and gas industry provided in the way of facts?

Q. What can I do to help?
A. You can tell the County Commissioners that you support the zone. Contact them by phone at 446-1595, or by email at commissioners@co.carbon.mt.us. The three County Commissioners are John Grewell of Joliet, Doug Tucker of Bridger and John Prinkki of Red Lodge. Tell them that the Silvertip Zone is critical to protecting our land, our water, and our way of life.

Q. How do I find out more?
A.  You can use the search function on this blog to read for yourself. If you’re just beginning to find out about this issue, a good place to begin would be a pamphlet put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists called Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate. It’s long on facts and a good primer on the issues.

We have also set up another web site for you to do your own research. It’s important to understand the issues.

You should also join Northern Plains Resource Council, which is leading the efforts in this area, or its affiliates Carbon County Resource Council and Stillwater Protective Association.

Thanks to Hank Lischer and Maggie Zaback for their help in putting this FAQ together.
Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Action alert: We need your attendance at a critical public meeting in Red Lodge on Monday, August 18

The location of the Belfry well
The location of the Belfry well

Please read and plan to attend this important event.

Who: Residents of the Silvertip community in Belfry are petitioning the Carbon County Commission to create a citizen initiated zone in their area. These are landowners who live near the initial Energy Corporation of America well permitted by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas.

The well at Belfry
The well at Belfry

What: This zone is a cornerstone of the strategy to bring fairness to oil and gas drilling along the Beartooth Front. The zone document petitions the Carbon County Commission to set up a planning and zoning commission to oversee oil drilling in the Silvertip area. The petition, signed by more than 60% of the landowners in the area, requires that oil operators use “highest and best management practices” when drilling in the zone.

When: The petition is on the agenda for the regular meeting of the Carbon County Commission on Monday, August 18 at 10:30am. Please arrive by 10:00 to make sure you are in attendance when this agenda item begins.

An oil truck envelopes us in dust. Click to enlarge.
An oil truck near the well kicks up dust on passing cars

Where:The meeting will be held in the Carbon County Commissioners Hearing Room at 17 West 11th Street in Red Lodge.

Why: This is a critical step in our campaign to preserve the Beartooth Front. The citizen initiated zone restores fairness to oil and gas drilling. It is not a ban or a moratorium. It allows mineral rights holders to get their oil, but it protects the property rights and water of local residents in a way that state and federal law do not.

Bonnie Martinell, an organic farmer from the Silvertip area, will be presenting at the meeting
Bonnie Martinell, an organic farmer from the Silvertip zone, will present at the meeting

The reason why we are asking you to attend is to show the County Commission that there is broad support for this effort in the community. The meeting is an opportunity for you to take action and make a difference in the fight to preserve the Beartooth Front.

If you are interested in carpooling:
Billings area: contact Alicia at alicia@northernplains.org            or 248-1154
Stillwater County: contact Hannah at Hannah@northernplains.org or 248-1154

Coming up on Monday: Frequently Asked Questions about the Silvertip petition — everything you need to know about this part of the plan to preserve the Beartooth Front.

Background: you should read these posts.
Citizen initiated zoning: a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana
A visit to the front in the war against rural America

Please share this post with people who might want to come!

Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Repost: A visit to the front in the war against rural America

A visit to the frontLast week I took advantage of the beautiful Montana spring weather to drive over to Belfry. There I could see for myself the site of the well recently permitted by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC). It was one of those incredible Montana days when Winter and Spring intersect. The temperature was near 70, yet the snow was piled high in Red Lodge, where it was the end of ski season. As I dropped down 2000 feet into Bridger the snow disappeared and it was spring.

Beartooths from Bridger. Ski runs visible on the right.
The Beartooths from Belfry. Ski runs visible on the right. Click to enlarge.

In Belfry the Beartooth Mountains dominate the landscape, standing watch from nearly 13,000 feet. In one direction I could see the ski runs above Red Lodge, and in another the breathtaking Beartooth Pass that leads to Cooke City and Yellowstone Park. On the clearest days the Grand Tetons lend their wispy beauty from 200 miles away.

Latest front in the oil and gas war
It’s hard to imagine that this gorgeous scene could be the latest front in the war that pits the oil and gas industry against rural America. But it’s true: this is Ground Zero for the entry of fracking into southern Montana.

When John Mork, CEO of ECA, announced last October that his company plans to frack 50 wells in Carbon and Stillwater Counties and “bring the Bakken to the Beartooths,” it sent chills through the region. Residents here know that the cost of the oil and gas boom in the Bakken is being paid by the locals in unrecoverable environmental and social damage.

When the first fracking permit application was located right here off Silvertip Road, the battle began. The BOGC fast-tracked the permit, denying local residents and environmental organizations an opportunity for a hearing to present issues and concerns. Northern Plains Resource Council and Carbon County Resource Council quickly sued, demanding a hearing and reform of a process that is completely weighted in favor of the oil and gas industry at the expense of Montana citizens.

Because of the suit, BOGC granted a hearing, but it was all for show. The Board ignored requests from residents to modify the permit to provide property protection, and they paid no attention to expert testimony that there are very real dangers to the drilling plan: the permit does not mention hydraulic fracturing, yet it is clearly planned; there is no specification of the chemicals to be used in fracking; there is no source water specified for the millions of gallons that will be required; there are no specified disposal plans for waste water and flowback; and more.

Clarifying these things would not be onerous for ECA, yet BOGC appears willing to let the company do whatever it pleases regarding chemicals, water, and waste disposal. In the testimony the expert revealed that BOGC’s permitting standards are even lower than those recommended by the oil and gas industry. The permit was approved by a 6-1 vote.

The suit continues as Northern Plains and CCRC seek reformation of a state agency that is broken. It is simply an arm of the oil and gas industry, not a representative of the people of the state.

The Belfry community
ECA undoubtedly picked this well site because of geological considerations, but they probably didn’t know who they were dealing with. They may regret not finding out.

As beautiful as the landscape is, it is clear that people who settle here do not come to get rich. They live here because of the solitude and the beauty, to enjoy nature and to do battle with it for their existence. The growing season is short — four to five months. The risk of extreme weather in planting and harvesting threatens output every year.

Water is precious here. People dig their own wells, which go to very different depths: some eight feet, some 15 feet, some 60 feet. There is no map of the underground aquifers, so water quality is always a concern, vulnerable in unknown ways to environmental changes. There is a concern about the current water quality in Silvertip Creek, which runs through the area, but no money is available to test it. Neighbors share a common ditch for a variety of water uses, with a governing board of property owners to manage its use.

While neighbors tend to their own business, living in this rugged area creates a common bond among them. When someone is in trouble, neighbors are always right there to provide help and support.

The beginning of fracking in the area is certainly trouble, and neighbors are in action, ready to work together to protect their futures.

Oil and gas drilling in Carbon County
Oil and gas production isn’t a new issue here. The farmers and ranchers in this area have been coexisting with oil wells for decades. It is an uneasy balance, but the residents live with it. The introduction of fracking will dramatically change that balance. Instead of taking place away from their farms and ranches, fracking will bring drilling down the hill and onto their properties. This change threatens their water, their property values, and their personal health. They get that a single spill could wipe out everything they’ve worked to build and hold on to over the years.

An oil truck envelopes us in dust. Click to enlarge.
An oil truck enveloped in dust. Click to enlarge.

Heading up the two-lane dirt road to the area where oil drilling takes place, my guides and I take a few moments to enjoy the peaceful silence, punctuated only by the song of the Western Meadowlark, Montana’s state bird and the soundtrack of much of the American West. The geology is amazing, the rock cut in jagged patterns as we rise in elevation. From time to time a large oil truck passes by, breaking the silence and enveloping us in a cloud of dust that reduces visibility to zero.

Approaching the oil wells a couple of miles up the road, we smell the foul rotten egg stench of hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the drilling process. The smell is a stark contrast to the pure air down below, and a reminder of what it would be like if the wells moved down the hill. As we drive up Silvertip Road, the road extends through the oil country into Wyoming, where it goes all the way into Powell.

bridger oil well1The wells are sparse, one every couple of hundred yards, and they clang away to their own beat, dipping and rising as they pull oil from the earth far below. Rusty tanks hold the product of their work. The pipeline that moves the oil is visible, and its condition isn’t encouraging. We note that this is the beginning of the Silvertip pipeline that flows under the Yellowstone River, the one that broke and caused a major spill in 2011.

Carbon County Oil Production
Carbon County Oil Production, 2000 – 2013 (click to enlarge)

Carbon County is not a huge oil producing area, and this is one of a handful of small pockets of production. County-wide oil output has been declining slowly since 2000, from a high of 56,189 barrels per month in July 2000 to its current level of 31,788 barrels in August 2013. Nobody lives up here where the oil wells are, so the daily balance between the farms and ranches down below is only broken by the trucks, which leave a trail of dust behind on houses, vehicles and crops as they rumble by.

There have been a handful of oil spills here dating back to the 1970s, most recently in the 1990s, and the residue of damage from them remains. Since the populated area is downhill from the wells, the risk of spills is always in the minds of residents.

Carbon County has been unwilling to provide much help to curb the dust. When a call from a resident to Senator Tester’s office generated an immediate response from ExxonMobil, the road was oiled right away. Unfortunately the county grader came through shortly after and scraped off the oil coating. Such is life in remote oil fields. The residents know that they are on their own in protecting themselves against the heavy industry fracking would bring.

ECA permitted well site. The well pad will go near the center of the picture, to the left of the house. Click to enlarge.
ECA permitted well site. The well pad will go near the center of the picture, to the left of the house. Click to enlarge.

The ECA well site
When I got to the site of the permitted well. I imagined a big blinking neon sign that would say “FRACKING SITE,” but it is just a dry grassy field near a house. I was struck by the fact that the site is clearly a drainage area, very vulnerable to high water that could be dangerous to a water impoundment. I’m told that just a few weeks ago, when there was rapid snow melt that rushed water right through here, the water level was high and would likely have washed over an impoundment at that location.

I hear that the owners of this property, who do not own the mineral rights to the land, received a one-time payment of a few thousand dollars for access. They were persuaded that they really have no choice, which is true in split estates, and so they signed. Most of the estates in this area have been separated over the years. Many of the surface rights owners own none, some 25%, some 50% of the mineral rights.

Now that warm weather is here drilling will likely begin soon. ECA is advertising for a production foreman for the area.

What is at stake
Residents recognize that their tenuous balance with nature and oil and gas drilling depends on how broadly fracking is allowed to take place. And they don’t shy from a fight.

It’s important to understand that the people who live here are not the kind of folks who will march into a meeting holding up signs that say, “Don’t Frack My Back Yard.” They have lived with oil and gas drilling for years. They don’t expect to stop it. They know that Montana law favors mineral extraction over surface ownership. Many of them attended the meeting of the BOGC when the hearing over the permit took place. The dismissive body language of the Board members told residents all they needed to know about the contempt the Board had for their concerns.

But they also know the tenuous hold they have on their land hangs in the balance. And they’re well aware that few are fighting for them. Despite the lawsuit, they see every elected politician in Congress, in the state legislature and even the Carbon County Commission embracing the oil and gas boom as an economic growth engine. They know that they are just collateral damage.

Just another corporation
They’re also well aware that ECA is not going to be their friend or partner in this process. The company has stood up in meetings in Red Lodge and talked about corporate responsibility, but people in the area have seen ECA’s safety record in Pennsylvania and West Virginia — 66 inspections with violations, 90 separate violations, and 55 enforcement actions with fines totaling over $80,000 in Pennsylvania; 70 more violations in West Virginia. This is just another corporation wanting to exploit oil and gas. Spills, accidents and violations are just a part of doing business.

The Beartooth Pass. Click to enlarge

The Beartooth Pass. Click to enlarge

They know that nobody is going to fight for them, but they know they have to stand up for their rural way of life if it is going to survive. They’re clear on what will happen if BOGC grants every permit ECA requests with no concern over how it affects the area. It’s the same thing that has happened all over the country when the rights of citizens have been sacrificed for oil and gas drilling: their water will become contaminated and their air will be fouled. The music of the meadowlark will be drowned out 24 hours a day. Their crops will suffer and the wildlife will disappear. The destruction of the land will significantly reduce their property values. The truck traffic will congest the dirt road, leaving dust everywhere. They will need to lock their doors at night. Whatever royalties they receive for their mineral rights will eventually be gone, and their lives will never recover.

They also know that they have rights. Section 3 of the Montana Declaration of Rights, which is part of the state constitution adopted in 1972, says “the right to a clean and healthful environment” is an “inalienable” right.

What residents want
And they know what they need to hold onto their precarious balance with nature and oil and gas drilling. It’s not a long list, and it doesn’t keep mineral rights holders from getting what they want. It just makes them extract the oil in a way that preserves everyone’s rights and property. They’ve discussed it as a community, and they’re clear on what they need to protect themselves: limiting the number of well heads operating at any given time, protecting their water through constant testing and remediation, and designing and operating wells so the probability of spills and contamination is minimized.

If you think about it, these are the things the BOGC should have built into the ECA drilling permit if they were doing their jobs. It is respectful of mineral rights and surface rights, and it guarantees the citizens’ right to a clean and healthful environment.

The culture of Montana government is still rooted in the early 20th century, when mineral extraction was the only driver of the state’s economy. In the 21st century, when fracking technology endangers people’s lives, their livelihoods, and their health, it’s time for change.
******

Update from a resident, April 17: “I drove up there and sure enough they have staked the pond and have a bulldozer in there. So yes they have started. And the pond is right where I thought it would be.”

Update, April 20: I cross posted this on dailykos and was voted onto the recommended list. That will give this post wide readership.

ECA vendor taking water illegally near Belfry well

ECA vendor taking water illegally near Belfry well

Update, May 21: ECA started drilling on the well this week. Observant local residents noticed that an ECA contractor was illegally taking water from a local gravel pit without a water right and notified the Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation (DNRC), which is responsible for issuing water rights in the state. A flood of citizens contacted the DNRC demanding that they step in to stop this.

ECA denied they were doing this, issuing a statement saying, “We have taken all necessary steps to appropriately and lawfully utilize the water being drawn from the gravel pit.”

A day later the DNRC shut them down and they were forced to purchase water from another source.

Update, June 16: Energy Corporation of America (ECA) took down the well structure at the site. They began dismantling the structure last week and hauled off the structure over the next few days. This is typical in drilling operations. The purpose is to analyze samples they have collected from their initial drilling.

Current state of well head in Belfry. Click to enlarge

Current state of well head in Belfry. Click to enlarge

Update, July 17: On July 7 ECA gave notice of “intent to perforate” the well. In addition they have filed an “intent to stimulate or chemically treat the well.”

Both of these are steps toward hydraulic fracturing. What they are doing is continued testing as they move toward fracking. This means that they have not yet made the decision to frack, but are taking steps in that direction.

According to Jim Halverson of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas (BOGC), ECA has told him that they plan on monitoring the results of the perforations for 30 days, then will apply to frack if they want to move forward.

Update, August 14: Local residents have signed petitions to submit to the Carbon County Commission at their regular meeting on Monday, August 18. The petitions request the formation of a planning and zoning commission to set up a citizen initiated zone. The zone would define highest and best management standards for drilling in the area.

Updates to come on this blog.

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Citizen initiated zoning: a way to restore fairness to oil and gas drilling in Montana

Oil and gas drilling in Montana is fundamentally unfair to landowners. Because of the way the law and institutions are structured, landowners have few rights, and the deck is stacked unfairly in favor of those who profit from oil and gas extraction.

We’ve discussed this on many occasions. Montana defines two estates for a property: the surface estate and the mineral estate. When a property owner owns both the surface and mineral rights, the estate is unified, or fee simple. More often, estates are split. Minerals have been severed from the land, either because the federal government reserved minerals in its initial homestead claims, or because the owner has sold off the mineral rights to a property.

flared well in Douglas wyoming2The dominance of mineral rights When an estate is split, mineral rights are dominant. In 1963, the Montana legislature adopted Mont. Code Ann. § 76-2-209 as part of the Montana Zoning and Planning Act (MZPA). This law effectively prohibits local governments from

prevent(ing) the complete use, development or recovery of any mineral, forest, or agricultural resource.

This is similar to laws in other Western states. The owners of natural resource rights have a protected ability to get those resources out of the ground. This puts surface owners of split estates at an unfair advantage. Every aspect of oil and gas law in the state has been constructed to protect the exploitation of mineral rights. Oil and gas companies can pay a small one-time fee to gain access to your land. Once they have access they can set up a heavy industrial operation, with heavy machinery, constant truck traffic, and 24×7 noise and light. With heavy machinery comes industrial accidents, putting a surface owner’s water, air and way of life at risk.

Impact on surface owners
The result for surface owners can be a loss of property rights, declining property values, inability to obtain mortgages, and inability to get insurance, with little compensation for damage done. When the oil operator leaves, your property can be unusable for its original purpose.

Surface owners who refuse to allow drilling on their property can be forced to participate at higher cost through the process of involuntary pooling. There are few requirements in the law for basic safeguards that would protect surface owners: water testing, well design, inspections and so on. The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), which has primary responsibility for permitting wells in the state, is structured to promote the drilling of wells for profit, and not to safeguard the citizens of the state.

beartooth flowersThe federal government also provides little protection. Between 1970 and 1990 there were many federal laws passed that were designed to protect our environment. Since that time the oil and gas industry has been successful in becoming exempt in very significant ways from these laws. An example is the Halliburton Loophole, passed in the Energy Act of 2005, which exempts oil and gas from having to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, which are now protected as “trade secrets.

This is a bleak picture, and we’ve told many personal stories on this blog of people whose lives have been adversely affected, not just in Montana, but in many other states as well.

How local communities can protect themselves
But Montana law provides a way for local communities to take action to protect themselves. While you can’t keep mineral rights holders from getting oil out of the ground, they can be constrained by conditions imposed by local governments. Montana counties and municipalities have authority to create special zoning districts that can impose rules for extraction activities.

The process is called citizen initiated zoning, as set forth in Montana law in MCA 76-2-101. Here’s how it works:

  • Any interested group of citizens in a county can create a zone. It is a democratic process. If 60% of the residents in an area want to create the zone, it can be brought forward to the County Commission.
  • The rules of the zone must be drafted to be consistent with the county growth plan.
  • A zone map must be created to reflect the properties to be included in the zone and define the perimeter of the zone
  • Each landowner who supports the district needs to sign a petition. The signature must match exactly the name on the title of the land.
  • When more than 60% of the landowners in the district have signed the petition, it can be brought to the County Commission.
  • After the County Commission receives the petitions, it holds a public meeting to determine whether the zone is in the “public interest and convenience.” If so, the district is established.
  • If the zone is established it is referred to a county planning and zoning commission. This is a seven member oversight board that reviews the zoning petition and recommends how it should be implemented.
  • After opportunities for public input, the planning and zoning commission puts in place the regulations for the district.
  • The planning and zoning commission is responsible for the ongoing administration of the district.

This method has been used in Montana in the past to manage mineral extraction. In 2005 Gallatin County established several permanent zoning districts to manage coalbed methane extraction in the Bozeman Pass area. Ruggiero kitchen

This is where we’re headed in Carbon County Over the last several months, since Energy Corporation of America CEO John Mork announced his plans to “bring the Bakken to the Beartooths,” this is the direction a grass roots group of citizens from Carbon County has been heading.

It is not a ban or a moratorium, but it is a way to balance the rights of surface owners and mineral owners in a way that protects property rights, water, air, and the rural and small town way of life of the area.

You’ll hear much more about this in the near future. Stay tuned and be ready to voice your support for this effort.

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Local journalists elevate storytelling to high art in chronicling Bakken

Last June four Montana journalists set off for the Bakken region to do in depth coverage of the past, present and future of the region.

American Gothic: Jim and Sharon Lundquist. Courtesy High Plains Project. Click to enlarge.

American Gothic: Jim and Sharon Lundquist. Courtesy High Plains Project. Click to enlarge.

Their goal, in what they have called The High Plains Heritage Project, is to produce a full documentary by this fall, but their aim is much richer than that. Stan Parker, one of the four, says,: “This is going to be an engaging way to experience this region — this moment — through movies, still images, and written word. There are so many unique voices, and we want our audience to sincerely feel like they’re meeting all of these people, too.”

Pete Tolton, another member of the group, points out that most of the news coverage of the boom has centered on the rapid growth, environmental impacts and soaring crime rates. “These are important issues,” he says. “But we want to focus on a part of this story that gets overlooked — individual people in the area’s small communities. We have lots of personal narratives to tell.”

Night Shift - Near Watford City. Courtesy High Plains Project. Click to enlarge.

Night Shift – Near Watford City. Photograph by Jessica Jane Hart. Click to enlarge.

If you care about the impact of oil and gas drilling, you won’t want to miss the documentary, but I hope you’ll check out their web site, created during the three weeks they spent in the area in June. On the site you’ll find short video clips (most about two minutes), audio stories, features and photos.

To entice you, here are a couple of their videos. Head on over to the site to check out the rest. These are stories that you won’t find elsewhere. They give you a feeling for the nuance of how the oil and gas boom has impacted the region. And they might give you an inkling of what “bringing the Bakken to the Beartooths” might really mean.

The story of Trevor and Andrea, who have come to Watford City to seek their fortunes:

 

A quick video of license plates in the Williston Walmart shows that the Bakken has attracted workers from everywhere:

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We’re fracking in the dark. We need to know what we’ll find out when the light comes on.

We have frequently written about “unknown unknowns” — the long-term impacts of oil and gas drilling that we cannot anticipate. These include health impacts, water contamination, impacts on global warming, and so on.

Steve Daines letter

Letter from Congressman Steve Daines inventing his own science (click to read full letter)

Drilling proponents often belittle these concerns, and say that the economy trumps unknown environmental impacts  and threats to personal safety. This point of view is expertly voiced by Montana Congressman Steve Daines, who famously said in a letter to a constituent,

While I believe we all have a moral responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, the current uncertainty surrounding climate change requires us to consider very carefully any legislation that would cost jobs and hurt families with only the promise of an extremely small impact on the reported problem….I will not support policies that would harm America’s economy while having an insignificant or uncertain benefit to the environment. We need a strong economy that creates jobs and opportunities for families and a clean sustainable environment.

This argument is pretty hard for me to swallow. It says that when we’re not sure what the environmental impact of oil and gas drilling is going to be, we should go full speed ahead if it helps the economy.

I wonder what our kids are going to think when they look back at Congressman Daines’ argument in 25 years or so, when the oil rigs are gone and the community is left dealing with the mess.

A recent study says we have no idea what we’re going to find out.

Fracking in the Dark
This week a team of eight conservation biologists sounded the alarm on the Steve Daines viewpoint in a study that coins the term “fracking in the dark.” The study’s argument is that, with shale gas drilling increased by 700% since 2007 and expected to increase over the next 30 years, we have vastly outpaced scientists’ understanding of the industry’s environmental impact.

The authors call on scientists, industry representatives and policymakers to cooperate on determining — and minimizing — the damage inflicted on the natural world by gas operations such as hydraulic fracturing“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley. “The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts.”

The study points to major sources of gaps in our knowledge due to the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the composition of fracturing fluids.

Rapid and widespread shale development has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and each well contributes to a collective mass of air, water, noise and light pollution that has or can interfere with wild animal health, habitats and reproduction. Potential sources of harm are depicted in the diagram below.

Possible environmental causes of fracking pollution. Adapted from
Causes of environmental damage due to fracking. Adapted from Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment and Princeton University PR Department.

Working in the dark at Ground Zero
Perhaps it is instructive to also look at the delayed impact of what has happened at Ground Zero in New York in the wake of 9/11 as a cautionary tale of why we should slow down on shale drilling.

More than 2500 Ground Zero rescuers, responders and workers have contracted cancer, according to recent reports. The World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York reports 1,655 responders with cancer among the 37,000 police, construction and sanitation workers, and others it monitors. In addition, the New York Fire Department, which has its own monitoring program, reports an additional 863 firefighters and EMTs have come down with the disease.

What is particularly frightening about the size of this cancer cluster is that it has more than doubled from the 1,140 cancer cases reported last year. WTC epidemiologists say studies show that 9/11 workers have gotten certain cancers at a significantly higher rate than expected in the normal population: prostate, thyroid, leukemia and multiple myeloma.

What we are seeing is a long delay between exposure and health impact. We’re now 13 years out from 9/11, and we’re just seeing a huge increase in the number of cancers reported.

I know. The circumstances are different, the chemicals are different, and you can’t compare apples and oranges. But when you expose people and animals to toxins without considering the long-term impacts, you are going to pay down the road. Don’t forget the case of Vernal, Utah.

Let’s not frack in the dark along the Beartooth Front
Today more than 15 million people in the United States live within a mile of an oil or gas well drilled since 2000. How many will suffer health effects? How much groundwater contamination will occur as damaged bore holes and leaky pit liners release water into the ground?

It’s going to take us a long time to figure all this out. Proof of the link between drilling, contamination and health is elusive. Michelle Bamberger, co-author of the recent book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets and Food, explains the difficulty of proving links between shale drilling and its long-term impacts:

We feel strongly that it’s because of the current testing methods that are used and the fact that for a lot of these chemicals, we don’t know what they are actually using — especially the proprietary mixes, we don’t know what all the components are. But also we don’t know what the maximum contaminate levels (MCLs) are. So, in other words, what is the level below which there are no health effects and above which definitely there are? And what are the effective screening levels for air? If we don’t really know them, then we believe these people have no recourse because there’s no MCL. And that came out really strongly for me. We have several cases in the book that are part of the EPA study, where I was shocked when I saw the water results that a large majority of those chemicals the EPA was testing didn’t have MCLs. And if you don’t have an MCL, you can’t go into litigation, you can’t go to court and say “we have conclusive evidence.” It doesn’t matter how sick they are and that they can’t use their water or that when they stop using their water they get better and when they use it again they get worse. None of that counts as conclusive evidence.

This makes it very easy for Steve Daines and his ilk to urge us to go full speed ahead. We have no conclusive proof. Let’s keep going, they say, because it’s good for the economy.

The bottom line is we don’t know, and we aren’t going to know for a long time. So should we be fracking in the dark? It seems like we have everything to lose in the long term for short-term gain.

Let’s pulll back on the throttle and limit what oil and gas companies are doing along the Beartooth Front.

Get informed, talk to your neighbors, and contact local authorities in Carbon and Stillwater Counties. Our land, our water, our health and way of life are at stake.

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Fake environmental group produces ads and videos attacking people like you and me

There are some semi-humorous videos running around the Internet from a group called the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the Center for Organizational Research and Education. The organization is supposedly “devoted to uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups and exploring the intersection between activists and government agencies.”

Environmental Policy Institute ad opposing local control in Colorado. Click to enlarge

Environmental Policy Institute ad opposing local control in Colorado. Click to enlarge

But the group is really a front for pro-drilling interests that want to turn public opinion against those who seek to stop uncontrolled oil and gas drilling. It’s the brainchild of Washington, DC attorney and lobbyist Rick Berman, once called “Dr. Evil” by CBS News.

Under the umbrella of the Center for Organizational Research, the group has launched advertising efforts aimed at discrediting the EPA, challenging the validity of the US Green Building Council’s rating system for sustainability and efficiency of buildings, and mocking local residents who seek to control oil and gas drilling in their communities.

One of the key tactics of the group is to manufacture doubt about scientific issues and creating confusion through the media. In the case of oil and gas drilling, that means citing as sources such groups as two well-known climate change-denying organizations, the Heartland Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute.

Here are two of their videos. You’re permitted a small smile of amusement, but then you should think of what the oil and gas industry is funding here. They want to depict those who are concerned about protecting their property, their water, and their way of life — that means you — as superficial, self-centered idiots who have no interest other than to derail job growth based on made up fears about safety and the environment.

Videos removed for now. They’ll be back.

If they spent the same money that they used to create these ads on utilizing industry-standard best practices in the communities they are ravaging, perhaps they wouldn’t find themselves at war with people from Texas to Pennsylvania to New York to Colorado to Montana.

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Colorado court decision favoring the oil and gas industry could actually be good news for us along the Beartooth Front

Last Thursday a judge in Boulder County, Colorado struck down a ban on fracking passed by the city of Longmont in November, 2012.

In the ruling, Judge D. D. Mallard said Longmont’s ban clearly conflicted with the state’s regulations and its interest in the efficient development of oil and gas deposits.

“While the court appreciates the Longmont citizens’ sincerely held beliefs about risks to their health and safety, the court does not find this is sufficient to completely devalue the state’s interest,” Mallard wrote.

The storage tanks of the former Rider Well are seen Thursday near Trail Ridge Middle School. Concerns about benzene leaks from the well helped energize the anti-fracking movement in Longmont, leading to a fracking ban in 2012

The storage tanks of a well in Longmont, Colorado. Concerns about benzene leaks from this well helped energize the anti-fracking movement, and led to a ban being passed in 2012.

The ban will remain in place while Longmont appeals the decision, which will likely end up before the Colorado Supreme Court.

In June, we posted about a New York Supreme Court decision that upheld a ban on fracking by the city of Dryden, New York. Over 170 cities and towns in New York have instituted similar bans, so the decision could conceivably end fracking in that state.

Cities in twelve different states have banned fracking. Many of these bans are pending court decisions on their validity.

So why is this good news for us along the Beartooth Front?
The all-or-nothing approach of having these bans decided in state courts is not a winning situation for the oil and gas industry. They will do much better if they compromise and agree to regulation of their activities at the local level. This may add to their cost of doing business and open them up to scrutiny and monitoring that they don’t have today, but it will ensure that they can continue to operate rather than losing years of revenues fighting it out in court, where they can potentially lose.

It’s not a winning situation for local communities either. The idea that a ban that a community worked on for years could get overturned in court is frightful.

It's worth the effort to keep this pristine

It’s worth the effort to keep this pristine

Local control over oil and gas drilling is what we have always advocated on this site. We are not proposing a ban on oil and gas drilling or fracking. Regulations that permit operators to extract oil if they adhere to industry-standard best practices are fair to local land owners and to the industry. They can protect our water and communities without depriving mineral rights holders of what is rightfully theirs.

Ultimately these conflicting decisions could be what is required to bring the oil companies to the table, and get local lawmakers there with them.

People often want to see this issue as all or nothing: NO FRACKING vs. ECONOMIC GROWTH. It doesn’t have to be. Communities should be able to protect themselves from unnecessary damage. Mineral rights owners should be able to get their assets out of the ground. The goal should be to preserve community, not to divide it in two.

There’s a middle ground. It’s up to all of us as citizens to demand it. The situation that exists today, in which the balance of power is tilted entirely toward the oil and gas industry, needs to be changed.

Right now oil and gas companies don’t work with local communities because they don’t have to. They are exempted from most environmental legislation, and landowners have almost no right to restrict their activities.

The latest court decisions in Colorado and New York may make it possible to shift the balance toward fairness.

Related:
Watch our video.

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