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: KTVQ.com

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

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: KTVQ.com

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

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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A debate between Pope Francis and Montana Senator Steve Daines on climate change

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

The Vatican has released its long-awaited encyclical on climate change. Entitled “Laudato Si,” or “Be Praised,” it is long and thorough, and goes far beyond a typical papal encyclical.

Instead of addressing only the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, it speaks to the entire world in a harsh critique of modern life, calling for a complete reassessment of lifestyle, politics and economics as we seek to repair our world and protect it from the dire threat of climate change.

The document puts the blame squarely on humans, and no one is spared — politicians, businesspeople, industrialists and common citizens. Francis calls on all of us to work together to change:

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Senator Steve Daines

Senator Steve Daines

A debate
The Pope’s bold statement puts him squarely in opposition to many leaders in the United States who deny climate change. In the interest of promoting the conversation that Francis seeks, let’s take the published comments of the Pope to create a debate with Senator Steve Daines, whose documented positions are pretty much diametrically opposed.

We’ll take the major themes in the encyclical, and match the Pope’s words against statements on the same topics made and endorsed by Daines. The difference is stark.

It’s likely one of them is right and one is wrong. When our descendants look back in a hundred years, who do you think will be vindicated?

Read and judge for yourself.

We are the cause of the degradation
Pope Francis: “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.

“These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.”

Steve Daines letter

(click to read full letter)

Steve Daines: “As you may know, there is considerable debate as to whether human activities significantly contribute to climate change. While some believe increased levels of CO2 from human activities in our atmosphere are a major factor in planetary warming trends, others observe that there may be other factors. Some note that increases in solar activity have contributed to our global warming trend. Still others suggest that our planet has gone through many natural heating and cooling cycles over the last thousand years.” (from a letter to a constituent. Click at right to read.)

Fossil fuel burning is the climate change culprit
Pope Francis: “There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy.”

“We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

Steve Daines: “Montanans understand that “Made in America” energy helps keep prices lower and reduces our dependence on foreign sources…. (O)ur federal government has blocked projects that are part of the solution, like the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“Montana is called the Treasure State for a reason, and has an abundance of natural energy resources including coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, and wind. I will fight for an all-inclusive, and market based energy policy that removes barriers to developing our natural resources in Montana and across America.”

Poverty and inequality need to be addressed
Pope Francis: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.”

“We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

“As the United States bishops have said, greater attention must be given to ‘the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests. We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.”

Steve Daines: “More than 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity— more than half living in developing Asian nations. Coal-powered electricity won’t just meet a rising demand for energy in these regions. It will also help lift countless families out of poverty.

“As the world sees an increased demand for power, it’s clear that traditional energy sources generated from our federal and tribal lands, including Montana’s Powder River Basin and the Bakken oil formation, have the potential to meet this rising global energy demand.”

The urgency to act falls on all humanity
Pope Francis: “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.”

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.”

Steve Daines: (from the constituent letter above) “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 graduated with an engineering degree from MSU. My education trained me to base decisions on sound math and science. I will not support policies that would harm America’s economy while having an insignificant or uncertain benefit to the environment.”

It is a myth that humans can dominate the earth without consequences.
Pope Francis: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.”

Click to view publication

Click to view publication

Steve Daines: Daines is one of the Congressional sponsors of the Capitol Ministries 2015 publication Coming to Terms with the Religion of Environmentalism, which states, “The Psalmist reinforces the idea that man has been created in the image of God and has been given dominion over all of the earth…. Whereas Scripture clearly teaches that man is the apex of all God’s purposes  and creations, the primary purpose of radical environmentalism is the preservation of the earth.”

The current level of inaction is indefensible
Pope Francis: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear.

“This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

Steve Daines: “I pledge to the taxpayers of my state, and to the American people, that I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.”

There is hope
Pope Francis: “Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities.”

“Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

Steve Daines: “Coal, oil and natural gas will continue holding a critical role in powering the world for the foreseeable future.”

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Action Alert: Your voice is needed to put strong Montana setback rules into place

Note to readers: I would normally spread a post of this length over two or three days. However, the content is time critical. Please read this and take action if you can.

The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) will hold a special one-hour public session on Wednesday, June 24 to consider whether to regulate oil and gas “setbacks” — the distance between a well and a water source or an occupied dwelling, school, or hospital. This is an opportunity for your voice to be heard, either in person or by email, to help set rules on this critical issue.

The meeting will be at 1:00pm in the Hearing Room at the BOGC office at 2535 St. Johns Avenue in Billings.

BOGC consideration of this issue is long overdue. One of the most critical tensions between the rights of communities and those of oil and gas operators is the distance of the “setback” between a well and occupied dwellings. Most state setback laws are antiquated. They date back to the pre-fracking period when all wells were vertical, and most drilling occurred in rural areas.

But fracking has changed all that. Today over 15 million people live with a mile of a well. The footprint of wells has expanded substantially. There can be eight wells on a pad, and drilling activity brings a constant flow of truck traffic, 24×7 noise, flaring and a stream of workers. Fracking has moved drilling to small towns and urban areas, and progressive states are increasing their setback limits  to take this new reality into account.

Montana’s setback rules are not antiquated — they don’t exist. That’s right. In Montana there is no legal buffer between a wellhead and where people live, where kids go to school, where patients are treated. Operators have legal discretion to place a wellhead pretty much anywhere they choose.

The Montana Legislature had a chance to rectify this in the 2015 session, but they failed to do so. Senate Bill 177, which would have established a 1,000 foot setback from a home, water well or surface water, was tabled in committee and never made it to the floor for a vote.

How you can make a difference
You can make your voice heard in two ways:

  1. Attend the meeting and address the BOGC. If you plan to attend, there will be a prep meeting at 11:30am on Wednesday at Northern Plains Resource Council, 220 S 27th St in Billings.
  2. Submit written comments. Send your comments to ogsetback.comments@northernplains.org, and they will be submitted to the BOGC. Be sure to make the comments personal. State your name, where you’re from, and any special interest you have in the subject. Feel free to use the content in this post as you see fit.

Why setbacks are important
There are many reasons why Montana needs to codify adequate setbacks. Here are four of the most important ones you might consider citing in your oral or written comments:

1. The division in property rights between surface and mineral estates is fundamentally unfair to surface owners. In Montana and much of the West, property rights on a piece of land are split between surface and mineral estates. In some cases these estates are unified — the same owners owns the surface and mineral rights. But in many cases, the estate is split, and the surface rights are severed from the 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 governments from

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

In practice, this means that mineral rights are dominant. An operator typically offers a surface rights holder a one-time fee in the neighborhood of $1500 per acre used, and puts up a small bond to pay for damages. Then, depending on the setback limits, they can place a well where they choose and have 24×7 access to the property.

This is fundamentally unfair. At the very least, significant setbacks are required to protect the property and livelihoods of surface owners.

A northern Colorado home with a pump jack in front and a rig behind it. Credit: Stephanie Joyce

A northern Colorado home with a pump jack in front and a rig behind it. Credit: Stephanie Joyce

2. If setbacks from water supplies are inadequate, water used for agriculture, ranching, and drinking can become contaminated. The risk of water contamination has been a continuous theme on this site. There is ample evidence that drilling causes water contamination. A recent EPA report identifies five ways in which fracking makes water supplies vulnerable:

All of these risks are increased with proximity of the well to water supplies. Strong setbacks are required to protect our water.

There are very real reasons to be concerned about this. Energy Corporation of America, which has been active along the Beartooth Front, has been cited multiple times in Pennsylvania for violations related to the risks mentioned in the EPA report.

3. Oil and gas drilling negatively impacts human health and safety. This has been another continuous theme on this site. Study after study has shown that when people are exposed to oil and gas drilling, particularly the chemicals used in fracking, their health is negatively impacted.

Rather than go into detail here, I invite you to look at two summaries, written by credible organizations, that clearly show the risk to health of oil and gas drilling:

Click to download complete study

Click to download complete study

Physicians, Scientists and Engineers Healthy Energy Literature Review
You can click at left to read an analysis of peer-reviewed scientific research on the health impacts of fracking by PSE Healthy Energy, a collaborative of science professionals that provides a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying “reasonable, healthy, and sustainable energy options for everyone.”

Their findings:

  • 96% of all papers published on health impacts indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 87% of original research studies published on health outcomes indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 95% of all original research studies on air quality indicate elevated concentrations of air pollutants.
  • 72% of original research studies on water quality indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.
  • There is an ongoing expansion in the number of peer-reviewed publications on the impacts of shale and tight gas development: approximately 73% of all available scientific peer-reviewed papers have been published in the past 24 months, with a current average of one paper published each day.
Click to download compendium

Click to download compendium

Concerned Health Professionals of New York Compendium
A second compendium of scientific and medical findings was released last December by an alliance of health professionals called the Concerned Health Professionals of New York. You can download the compendium by clicking on the graphic at right. We reported on the first compendium here.

The compendium provides a list of studies that demonstrate many health issues related to fracking, including

  • Air pollution
  • Water contamination
  • Inherent engineering problems that worsen with time
  • Radioactive releases
  • Occupational health and safety hazards
  • Noise pollution, light pollution, and stress
  • Earthquake and seismic activity
  • Abandoned and active oil and natural gas wells as pathways for gas and fluid
    migration
  • Flood risks
  • Threats to agriculture and soil quality
  • Threats to the climate system
  • Inaccurate jobs claims, increased crime rates, and threats to property value and
    mortgages
  • Inflated estimates of oil and gas reserves and profitability
  • Serious risk to investors

You can go to the compendium and see a list of studies that document each of these issues.

4. Drilling reduces property values for homes close to oil wells. There is now extensive evidence that buyers are reluctant to purchase properties close to drilling sites. I have written often on this topic, but recommend you read this post, which summarizes data from all over the United States showing buyers are reluctant to bid on properties close to drilling sites, and when they do bid they reduce the amount they are willing to pay.

As Denver Realtor Adam Cox put it, “Potential buyers balk at buying homes near a drilling site, even though that’s often where the discounted homes are” because they are so close to oil and gas activity. Similarly, he said, homeowners near drilling sites “often have to sell at significantly lower prices than when originally purchased due to the oil and gas industry neighbors.”

According to another study done at Duke University and the University of Calgary, properties with private wells, such as those along the Beartooth Front, lose 10% more value than those with municipal water supplies.

It is fundamentally unfair for surface owners to be penalized because there are wells close to their properties. Strong setbacks help keep that from happening.

What setback distance should be required?
The map below shows the required setback distances, in feet, for individual states as of June 2013. These are mostly older regulations, set long before fracking brought wells into populated areas. Many states are working toward increasing their setback requirements, and many communities are setting their own setback limits to protect their citizens from unregulated drilling.

As you can clearly see from the map, Montana is one of the few oil and gas states with no setback requirements.

Source: Resources for the Future,
Source: Resources for the Future, “The State of State Shale Gas Regulations,” June 2013

 The literature offers slightly conflicting views of the ideal setback distance, but here are some things you might consider:

  • The Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana and the Powder River Resource Council in Wyoming have called for a quarter mile (1320 feet) setback from occupied buildings.
  • Individual cities and towns in Texas, Colorado and elsewhere are enacting ordinances that tend to establish setbacks of 1000 to 1500 feet. Since it is unlikely Montana will establish different setbacks for populated and unpopulated areas, this is a reasonable guideline to consider.
  • The oil and gas industry will resist the establishment of any setbacks. Therefore the BOGC will feel significant pressure not to set a significant setback. It makes sense to push as hard as possible for significant setbacks that will protect property, water and health.

The quarter-mile recommendation is a reasonable standard to push for.

What’s happened in Wyoming: a point of reference
To consider what is likely to happen in Montana, it is useful to look at what is going on in Wyoming, a neighboring rural oil and gas state with similar political structures to Montana’s. Wyoming is about a year ahead in this process of regulating setbacks, so we can see where this process took that state to anticipate what will happen in Montana . The results are not encouraging.

Wyoming setbacks are defined by rule as follows: “Pits, wellheads, pumping units, tanks, and treaters shall be located no closer than three hundred fifty feet (350′)” from “water supplies, residences, schools, hospitals, or otherstructures where people are known to congregate.” (see Section 22 (b) on page 3-32). This is a decades-old rule.

As drilling has expanded in Wyoming and has come closer to homes in populated areas of Converse, Campbell, Johnson and Laramie Counties, residents have begun to speak out in alarm at the proximity of drilling activities to occupied residences. Governor Matt Mead, who by law is chair of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, indicated a willingness to consider increasing setback laws in the state. He asked for citizen input, and had staff look at the issue and make a recommendation.

Meanwhile the oil and gas industry actively lobbied for a setback limit of 500 feet, an increase from 350 feet. They made this proposal last November, citing “a substantial burden on land and mineral owners without compensation for the loss of mineral reserves and…serious harm to our communities’ ability to provide important public services like schools, roads and public safety” if the limits were increased.

Oil and Gas Commission staff looked at the issue and recommended required setbacks be 750 feet.

Citizen groups, including the Powder River Resource Council, argued that limit be increased to a quarter mile, or 1320 feet.

Guess what happened?

The Commission adopted the oil and gas industry’s 500 foot proposal, with two stipulations:

  1. Companies have to notify landowners living within 1000 feet of a well pad of their drilling plans between 30 and 180 days before drilling starts.
  2. Companies have to submit a mitigation plan to the Oil and Gas Supervisor detailing how they’re going to minimize impacts on neighbors. They wouldn’t be able to start drilling until that plan is approved.

Neither of these has much teeth. A 30-day notification is precious little time for a landowner to take action if a property is to be drilled, and it’s hard to believe the Oil and Gas Supervisor has any incentive to be heavy-handed in imposing restrictions on an operator. As Wyoming landowner Alex Bowler put it, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission “only has two priorities”: preventing the waste of oil and gas resources, and maximization of mineral-related tax revenues. “The health and safety of local residents … and the potential devaluation of property are not really on the (agency’s) radar.”

You can listen to a Wyoming Public Radio piece on this subject by clicking below.

Time for Montana residents to take action
Things in Montana are very similar. The primary mission of the Montana BOGC is threefold:

  1. To prevent waste of oil & gas resources,
  2. To conserve oil & gas by encouraging maximum efficient recovery of the resource, and
  3. To protect the correlative rights of the mineral owners, i.e., the right of each owner to recover its fair share of the oil & gas underlying its lands.

That’s pretty clear. The word “conservation” in the agency’s name is not about conserving natural resources, but about conserving oil and gas, and protecting the rights of mineral holders.

That is why you should take the opportunity to step up and either attend Wednesday’s meeting or submit written comments to ogsetback.comments@northernplains.org. This is important. It appears likely that the BOGC will take up the issue of setbacks, but if they are going to be more than a small amount, you are going to have to make your voice heard.

And you can be sure that the Montana Petroleum Association will make its voice heard, fighting any regulation that will restrict when and where they pull oil out of the ground.

Now is the time to speak.

More: The State of State Shale Gas Regulation: State-by-State Tables
Great Falls Tribune letter to the editor on setbacks. A good model.

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Off topic: Are Wyoming’s Park County Commissioners about to sell their souls to a New Yorker?

Today we go a little off topic, but a constant theme here is that water is precious. Fracking uses a lot of water, and water contamination is a serious threat when drilling is not carefully regulated. But water is water, and we shouldn’t be destroying the environment along the Beartooth Front to take an important source of water no matter what the purpose.

Philippe Lajaunie

Philippe Lajaunie

So it caught our attention that Park County, Wyoming, on the Beartooth Front just over the Montana border from Carbon County, is considering a proposal — I can’t believe I’m even writing this — from a New York entrepreneur to build a large water bottling factory near the beautiful Clarks Fork Canyon.

Philippe Lajaunie, who owns property at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, just outside the Shoshone National Forest, is the New Yorker who wants to build the factory. His business claim to fame is that he owns the Brasserie Les Halles, a restaurant on Park Avenue in Manhattan that specializes in escargot, fois gras and steak tartare.

Problem is, according to the Powell Tribune, “The property lies within a county zoning district intended to promote ‘the retention of open space, agricultural land, wildlife habitat, riparian habitat and scenic areas.’ Major industrial projects — like the proposed water bottling plant — are not allowed. That means Lajaunie needs a variance, or exception to the rules, to move forward with his plans.”

canyon of the clarks fork riverIf he gets the variance, he plans to build a 45,000 square foot facility with a 37-space parking lot. According to his attorney, “Mr. Lajaunie is really going to endeavor to build a facility that is in harmony with nature and with the site.” Right.

The good news is that at least two Park County Commissioners think this is a bad idea.

“That’s probably one of the most pristine, scenic spots in Park County,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French during a May 19 hearing. “I just don’t think that’s the place for a big major industrial use.”

Last month French and fellow Commissioner Lee Livingston prevailed by a 2-1 vote, blocking the variance. Problem is, two Commissioners weren’t in attendance. They’ll be back, and the variance will be back on the agenda.

Commission Chairman Joe Tilden was on board with approving the variance. Tilden said he has strong feelings about private property rights and noted the jobs and business the project could create.

Lajaunie demonstrating harmony with nature

Lajaunie demonstrating harmony with the environment

“I think it can be done in a … very environmentally safe way that will blend in with the environment and won’t affect wildlife,” he said. That’s the same imaginary thinking drilling proponents use to justify ruining a place.

French countered that he, too, believes in private property rights and “the individual purchased the property knowing exactly what the restrictions on it were.”

(Read meeting minutes)

American Summit, the name of Lajaunie’s company, intends to market its water as bottled in the United States, and to compete against non-American brands Perrier, Fiji and San Pellegrino. Being bottled in Wyoming, according to Lajaunie, makes it — wait for it — more “environmentally sustainable.” The water is also (you can’t make this stuff up) “vegan certified.” No glutens or sage-grouse killed to make it.

Folks, water is precious. One of the most important arguments against fracking is that it uses scarce water at a time when much of the West is parched from drought. And anything that happens to waste water on the Clarks Fork in Wyoming will have an impact on Carbon County residents downstream.

This is a terrible idea. I’ll let you know if the Park County Commissioners decide to sell their souls to this New York restaurateur. Might even be worth a trip over the hill to let them know what you think.

If you’d like to contact them directly, here’s how to reach the Park County Commissioners:

Bucky Hall                 307-587-3684
Lee Livingston          307-527-7415
Tim French               307-754-5420
Joe Tilden                 307-587-1352
Loren Grosskopf      307-587-6607

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New study finds toxic air pollution in Ohio’s most heavily fracked county

Carroll County: location of study. Click to enlarge.

Carroll County: location of study. Click to enlarge.

A peer-reviewed study published by scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Cincinnati in the journal Environmental Science & Technology reveals that emissions generated by fracking operations may be exposing people to toxic pollutants at levels many times higher than the EPA considers safe for lifetime exposure. 

The researchers analyzed air samples from Carroll County, which has more permitted oil and gas wells (480) than any other Ohio county. They found that hydraulic fracturing emits pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), some of which are linked to increased risk of cancer and repiratory ailments.

Based on their data, the researchers calculated the cancer risk from airborne contaminants. For the worst-case scenario, exposure 24 hours a day over 25 years, they found that people living anywhere in the study area would be exposed to toxic pollutants at levels exceeding the threshold that the EPA considers safe.

Air sampler used in the study

Air sampler used in the study

The study was initiated after local residents contacted Erin Haynes, a public health expert at the University of Cincinnati, wanting to know about the health risks posed by the gas wells near them. The research involved citizen volunteers, who collected the air samples.

The analysis found the highest levels of PAHs nearest to the wells and decreased with distance. However, even at the lowest levels, which were detected at sites more than a mile away from a well, the samples revealed higher levels of PAHs than previous research had found in downtown Chicago or near a Belgian oil refinery. The lowest levels found in the study were about 10 times higher than in a rural Michigan area with no gas wells.

For those seeking a “smoking gun” that links fracking to these air pollution and health risks, keep in mind that this study doesn’t definitely show that fracking is the cause of the toxic air measured in Ohio. But, added to the other compelling evidence of the health risks of oil and gas drilling, it is reason to build regulatory precautions that will protect citizens from harm.

Related:
A database of 47 peer reviewed studies on the impact of oil and gas drilling on air quality
A compilation of studies on the impact of oil and gas drilling on air pollution from the Concerned Health Professionals of New York (see page 11)
A personal story of how drilling impacted the life of a Carroll Country, Ohio resident: A personal story: Kip Gardner, Carroll County, Ohio
Another example of the use of volunteer data collection to determine the health risks of oil and gas drilling: More new evidence of public health risk at drilling sites all over the United States
The precautionary principle and the science behind the New York fracking ban, a look at why studies like the one in Carroll County, Ohio are reason enough to stop or slow down fracking until we can clearly determine the dangers of oil and gas drilling

Posted in Health impacts | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Congress is currently very busy doing absolutely nothing about regulating oil and gas

Congress is well paid by the oil and gas industry to do absolutely nothing to protect communities from insufficiently regulated oil and gas drilling.

And that’s exactly what they’re busy doing — nothing. Of course, the process of doing nothing means appearing to be very busy,  introducing lots of bills that they know won’t pass to score points with their constituents and funders.

Source: Mother Jones

Source: Mother Jones

It should not be lost on us that their inaction is all about money. With the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the amount of political giving by the oil and gas industry has exploded, as indicated in the chart at left.

And what the oil companies want in return is to be left alone. They want to be free to pull oil and gas out of the ground without having to worry about poisoning the water supply or worrying about impacts on human health, and they want Congress, as much as possible, to backtrack on environmental legislation that has already been passed.

Sadly, this is exactly what Congress has given them. They have done nothing of significance to protect citizens in fracking regulation since the boom started over the last decade. And over the last 25 years they’ve been doing the bidding of their benefactors by gutting major environmental protections passed by a more bipartisan Congress in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s worth your time to read the detail of how these protections have been stripped away by a Congress more interested in pleasing their funders than protecting their constituents. Click on the graphic below for the terrible details.

oil and gas exemptionsSo Democrats are introducing bills that would restore some of these protections, and Republicans are introducing bills that would further strip away federal stewardship of the environment.

But it’s all posturing. Every member of Congress knows that none of these bills has a ghost of a chance of becoming law.

Democratic bills
The following bills have all been introduced by Democrats in the House of Representatives. As a group, they’re commonly referred to as the “Frack Pack.” If passed, they would provide important protections to communities and landowners, and remove oil and gas exemptions from major federal environmental legislation. On this site, we have advocated for provisions of all these bills, and the protections the bills would offer are what citizens seeking local zoning want.

HR 1482: Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2015 (FRAC) (House sponsor: Diana DeGette, CO): This bill would empower the EPA to regulate hydraulic fracturing. Key provisions:

  • Remove the hydraulic fracturing exclusion from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). You’ll recall that this exemption was passed as part of the Energy Act of 2005 at the behest of Vice President Cheney.
  • Impose increased requirements for disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process, although the bill still has a provision that gives companies trade secret protections.

HR 1515: Safe Hydration is an American Right in Energy Development Act of 2015 (SHARED) (House sponsor: Jan Schakowsky, IL). SHARED would add the following provisions to the SDWA:

  • Mandate that oil and gas operators implement groundwater testing before drilling operations begin.
  • Require operators to conduct testing throughout drilling operations.
  • List testing results online.

HR 1460: Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydrofracking Environmental Regulation Act of 2015 (FRESR) (House sponsor: Matt Cartwright, PA). FRESR addresses oil and gas exemptions in the Clean Water Act (CWA).  The bill would require oil and gas operators to obtain a permit for stormwater run-off through each stage of the fracking process.

HR 1154: Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects (BREATHE) Act of 2015. (House sponsor: Jared Polis, CO). BREATHE is directed at clearing up the oil and gas exemption in the Clean Air Act (CAA) by:

  • Adding hydrogen sulfide as a hazardous air pollutant.
  • Adding oil and gas wells as a major source of hydrogen sulfide.
  • Giving the EPA the ability to establish thresholds for the amount of hydrogen sulfide that is allowed to be emitted from the wells.
  • Repealing the provision of the CAA that allows the aggregation of oil and gas wells and compressor stations when determining whether an activity constitutes a major source.

HR 1902: Protect Our Public Lands Act (POPLA) (House sponsor: Mark Pocan, WI). POPLA would ban fracking on land leased by the federal government. However, drilling in operation when the bill is enacted would be permitted to continue until the lease expired or was adjusted.

Republican bills
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Republicans have introduced two bills in the Senate that would significantly reduce the federal government’s ability to regulate any fracking activity:

S 828: Fracturing Regulations are Effective in State Hands Act of 2015 (FRESH) (Senate sponsor: James Inhofe, OK, co-sponsored by Steve Daines, MT). FRESH would give states  sole authority for regulating fracking, including federal lands located within each state. You might recall our recent discussion on this bill in the case of the Wilks brothers, who are busy buying the loyalty of federal and state legislators in Montana.

S 15: Protecting States Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act of 2015 (PSRPAES). (Senate sponsor: Orrin Hatch, UT). PSRPAES targets the federal Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which governs the leasing of land for oil development. The bill would bar the Department of Interior from regulating hydraulic fracturing in a state if that state already regulates fracking. Under the bill, this would be true whether or not the regulations are more or less restrictive than federal regulations.

So there you have it. The Democrats want to regulate the oil and gas industry, and the Republicans want to take away regulations. But neither side will get anything done. Congress is, as Macbeth put it,

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

…a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

For those of us whose communities are threatened by oil and gas drilling, it is important to keep in mind that the federal government has no interest in passing legislation to preserve our environment, nor does the state of Montana. Montana legislators had ample chance to show their commitment to protecting its citizens in the 2015 session, but passed no bills that would provide necessary protections.

The failure of our elected representatives in Washington and Helena is exactly why we need local control of oil and gas activities. A group of local citizens in Stillwater and Carbon counties made the point well in this video produced in the summer of 2014. It’s worth watching.

 


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Great Falls Tribune interview with Jim Halvorson of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas

Jim Halvorson
Jim Halvorson

Peter Johnson of the Great Falls Tribune sat down last week for an interview with Jim Halvorson, Administrator of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC). The conversation speaks to the current state of oil drilling in Montana, and Halvorson’s perspective on the future. It’s interesting to hear directly from the BOGC Administrator, and since public information from the BOGC is hard to come by, worth sharing. It’s also good to see that a Montana daily newspaper  continuing to cover statewide news.

Halvorson has been Administrator for the last 10 months after spending the most recent 25 years of his career as a petroleum engineer for the BOGC. His tenure has been marked by dramatic change, with oil prices plunging to new lows and drilling rig counts dropping correspondingly.

Related: Confirming Halvorson’s comments below, the Billings Gazette reports that Montana has been without a major oil rig since April, down from 14 a year earlier.

The interview:

Answer: Oil prices were relatively high and somewhat stable until the fall of 2014. Since then the rig count for Montana has dropped from around six or eight to the current count of zero. Rig crews, which drill wells, were as high as 30 to 40 in the peak Montana year of 2005 in the Bakken region. Each rig crew has 12 or more workers, plus support personnel.

Q: What’s happened in the Bakken area the last year? Have oil producers shut down a lot of existing wells or reduced exploration and drilling because of lower crude prices?

A: Drilling in the Bakken Formation in Montana has basically ceased at the current oil price, which fell dramatically last fall. There have not been many wells actually shut-in yet but there are some drilled wells that might not be put in production until the oil price improves.

Q: Have the Montana and North Dakota portions of the Bakken seen similar exploration and drilling reductions?

A: Montana’s active rig count has fallen from around six or eight to zero since last fall, while the active rig count dropped from nearly 200 to 80 in North Dakota, which has had a much greater production than Montana. For comparison, during the height of Bakken development in Montana around 2005, there were fewer than 40 active rigs in the state.

Q: How would you characterize the impact on Montana’s oil-industry and related jobs?

A: Service companies, including those responsible for well drilling and completion, have been hard hit. Loss of support companies is also significant, since there could be a shortage of equipment and workers that could hinder new drilling and well completion when oil prices do increase.

Q: The price of West Texas intermediate crude oil has risen from $45 a barrel in February to $60 more recently. Will that help restore oil drilling in the Bakken area?

A: Not yet. The price of crude oil produced in the Bakken is usually discounted about $10 to $20 a barrel from the West Texas price because of quality and transportation issues, and currently remains $35 to $45 a barrel. It’s been widely reported that the local Bakken prices must reach the $65 to $70 per barrel range for drilling operations to resume. When that happens, areas of higher Bakken production rates in North Dakota should see increased production sooner than in Montana, where wells are less productive.

Q: What areas and types of drilling look promising in Montana?

A: Since costs are lower for conventional vertical wells, it is likely we will see more activity of that type first. Historic producing areas such as the Sweetgrass Arch, including Shelby, Cut Bank and Pondera County, always will have some new drilling. We also are seeing interest in conventional exploration in Williston Basin in northeastern Montana and in central Montana near Roundup.

Q: Has there been much exploration or drilling in central Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier County?

A: Interest and activity along the Rocky Mountain Front actually decreased prior to the drop in oil price. A number of test wells were drilled in Glacier County and farther south into Teton County, but only dry holes were drilled or uneconomic production rates encountered.

Q: Is there much drilling for natural gas in Montana?

A: Little drilling for natural gas will occur with current gas prices. Not too long ago the recovery rate for natural gas produced in Bakken-area oil wells exceeded 95 percent. But rapid development in North Dakota has temporarily saturated the gas gathering capacity in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.

As a result, Bakken Formation wells that are hooked to a gas pipeline sometimes are forced to flare gas since there is no available capacity. Companies are looking at a variety of solutions such as on-site natural gas liquids recovery systems and new pipelines.

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You’ve probably never heard of the Wilks brothers. They’re about to take away your property rights.

All about the money
It should come as no surprise that there was big oil money behind the new Texas law that stops local government from regulating oil and gas. What might shock you is that the same money is about to be used for the same purpose in Montana.

Denton fracking banWe’ve written about HB40, the Texas “ban on bans” bill, on several occasions. It was passed in response to a local fracking ban enacted last November in the town of Denton, Texas. The oil and gas industry is so excited about HB40’s passage that they have made it the cornerstone of a national game plan to strip local landowners of their right to regulate what happens on their own properties.

On its surface, Texas doesn’t seem like a natural place for this kind of bill because it runs contrary to the state’s fierce libertarian culture. The Lone Star State, like Montana, is a state that historically treasures personal freedom and local rights.

So how did a bill like this get passed? You know the answer: it’s money, of course.

According to Texans for Public Justice, the energy and natural resources industry was by far the largest funder in Texas in the 2014 election cycle, contributing over 16% of all funds raised. Oil and gas interests gave 31 Texas Senators a total of $1.7 million in the 2014 cycle, an average of more than $56,000 each. They gave $3.8 million to 144 Texas House members, more than $25,000 each.

Dan (l) and Farris Wilks. Photo: Real Estate Daily blog

Dan (l) and Farris Wilks. Photo: Real Estate Daily blog

Introducing the Wilks brothers
A very large portion of this money came from  Dan and Farris Wilks. The two brothers are self-made oil and gas billionaires who founded Frac Tech in 2002 and sold their 70% interest for $3.5 billion in May 2011. They continue to be players in the fracking industry, managing Interstate Explorations, an oil and gas field services company.

According to RH Reality Check, the brothers ponied up more than $800,000 in Texas campaign contributions in 2014, making them the largest single contributors from this sector. Of the contributions made directly to Texas legislators, the brothers and their wives accounted for over $300,000.

Every single legislator who received money from the Wilkses in 2014 voted for HB40. And Gov. Abbott, who signed it into law, received another $30,000. As Texans for Public Justice puts it, they’re “doing their masters’ bidding.”

The largest private landholders in Montana
So how does this relate to Montana? Well get this — according to Montana Cadastral figures, Dan and Farris Wilks own 341,845 acres in Montana, making them the largest private landowners in the state.

The Wilkses started buying land in Montana in 2011 with their purchase of Tom Siebel’s N Bar Ranch in Fergus County, and have been expanding their Montana holdings ever since, fanning out from their first purchase of the N Bar onto adjoining property in Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley Counties. They’re practically our neighbors in Stillwater County.

The Wilks Brothers N Bar Ranch, with Big Snowy Mountains in background. Photo: Brett French, Billings Gazette

The Wilks Brothers N Bar Ranch, with Big Snowy Mountains in background. Photo: Brett French, Billings Gazette

Turns out the brothers are also big supporters of Steve Daines, who recently co-sponsored S. 828, which specifies that “states (have) the sole authority to promulgate or enforce any regulation, guidance, or permit requirement regarding hydraulic fracturing on or under any land within their boundaries.” This includes federal lands. The bill was a direct response to new BLM rules requiring oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use to conduct hydraulic fracturing operations on federal lands, as well as regulating the storage of wastewater.

“States like Montana have successfully overseen hydraulic fracturing for years, but once again, the Obama administration seems more set on overregulating our energy industry than promoting the responsible development of our nation’s vast energy resources,” Daines wrote on his Facebook page.

Farris Wilks and his wife JoAnn contributed $25,000 to Daines’ election campaign last year. And the reason the Wilkses are so eager to get state control over BLM land is that they’ve been fighting with hunters and the BLM over their property ever since they purchased it.

According to the Billings Gazette, hunters in the Lewistown area rose up to successfully beat down a proposal by the Wilkses to exchange a ranch they purchased that would provide access to public land north of the Missouri River Breaks for 4,800 acres of BLM land within their central Montana holdings. The majority of that BLM land is a contiguous block known as the Durfee Hills. Some hunters have flown into the landlocked hills to hunt elk that spill over from the Wilkses’ N Bar.

“There was a lot of public outrage,” said Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte of Billings.

Durfee Hills. Photo: Brett French, Billings Gazette

Durfee Hills. Photo: Brett French, Billings Gazette

Coming for your property rights
But that’s a small piece of what’s coming. Interstate Explorations, the Wilkses’ oil company, is increasing its activity in Montana. It is now the 60th largest producer in the state (see chart on Page 6).

Now let’s put two and two and two together:

  • The Wilkses have made billions in fracking.
  • They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lavishing contributions on Texas politicians to thwart local regulation of oil and gas in the Lone Star State.
  • They’re now the largest private landowners in Montana
  • Their company is active in oil drilling in Montana
  • They’ve buddied up to Steve Daines and have made contributions that have furthered their interest in protecting their private land holdings.
  • The oil industry has a national strategy of outlawing local regulation in individual states.

Will you be surprised when the Wilkses fund a 2017 legislative effort in Helena to strip local communities of their right to regulate what happens on their own land?

You shouldn’t be. They’re already hard at work getting it done. In 2012, just after they started to purchase Montana land, the Wilks brothers and their wives were the largest individual contributors to Montana state legislators. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, they contributed a collective total of $51,040. Each of them gave to more than 70 candidates, all Republicans, and in most instances, they each gave the maximum allowed by law.

Time to wake up folks. They’ve bought and paid to have your rights taken away by the Montana Legislature, just like they did in Texas.

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Stillwater River rock slide reminds us of the dangers of drilling

There was a rock slide out our way on the Stillwater River last week. It blocked Stillwater River Road at Midnight Canyon, and probably will for a while, so traffic to Absarokee will have to take the long way around until County crews can figure out how to safely clean up the mess.

Photo: Stillwater County News

Photo: Stillwater County News, courtesy Carol Arkell

The good news is that nobody was injured, and no property severely damaged. But rock slides are very serious business. Stillwater County will have to figure out how to clean the mess up without triggering another slide or endangering a cleanup crew, since there is some rock left dangerously hanging in the area of the original slide. The cleanup could be a big cost for County government.

Hanging rock at source of slide. Photo: Stillwater County News, courtesy Carol Arkell

Hanging rock at source of slide. Photo: Stillwater County News, courtesy Carol Arkell

You can read more details and subsequent updates at the Stillwater County News.

These things aren’t rare. The powerful geological forces that cut the upper Stillwater River from Sioux Charley Lake past Woodbine Falls and through the narrow Gorge, beyond the Beehive toward Absarokee are constantly subject to reversal by natural forces. Rain, snow and and the constant flow of the River slowly wear away at the hills, causing erosion and slides. When you have rural unpaved roads cutting through the mountains, you’re going to get falling rock. And rural communities are particularly vulnerable, since unexpected slides can shut them off from the rest of the world for long periods of time.

Earthquakes associated with drilling
We also know that oil drilling is associated with earthquakes. It is well documented by peer-reviewed scientific data and tracked by the US Geological Survey that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of quakes due to waste injection wells associated with fracking in many different areas of the United States.

So it seems logical to be concerned about earthquakes in Stillwater County, particularly in the area near Dean and Fishtail, where there are a number of dirt roads that could be impacted by slides, just like Stillwater River Road. You just wouldn’t want to increase the risk of earthquakes that could cause slides that might cripple the local economy and endanger residents.

This is a very specific concern, and one that could be alleviated by local regulation. The solution is to not allow injection wells in the area.

The problem is that there’s no current mechanism to do this. There’s nothing in federal or state law that enables it, and nothing in the permitting regulations or the past history of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation that makes prohibiting injection wells at all likely.

So you would expect that local residents would want to put rules in place that prohibit injection wells in the area. It’s a reasonable concern, and local regulation is a reasonable solution.

That’s exactly what Stillwater landowners are doing. They’re currently gathering signatures from local landowners to present to the Stillwater County Commissioners to put a citizen initiated zone in place. The zone would establish local rules for oil drilling that would protect local water, the local economy, and landowner rights.

This is just good sense. The way of life that has developed over the years in this part of Stillwater County is unique, and it needs to be preserved. Since federal and state law don’t offer these needed protections, local citizens have every right to take action to protect their own communities.

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New EPA report links fracking to water contamination. That’s great, but local regulation is still required

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday released a new draft report on the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water. The study concludes that there are “potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water.”

EPA webinar_noonThe report, based on the latest peer reviewed scientific research, directly contradicts a 2004 EPA report, conducted under the Bush Administration, that said that fracking “poses little or no threat” to the drinking water supply, and “does not justify additional study at this time.” (see Section 7.4). That study was used to justify the Energy Act of 2005, which created the infamous Halliburton Loophole that gutted the Safe Drinking Water Act and allowed oil and gas companies to keep secret the chemicals used in fracking.

The 2004 report is also the basis for one of the great lies told by the oil industry: “there is no proven case where the fracking process has affected water.” We’ve clearly documented over and over that this is not true.

According to Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “(The study) is the most complete compilation of scientific data to date, including over 950 sources of information, published papers, numerous technical reports, information from stakeholders and peer-reviewed EPA scientific reports.”

Stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle (from the EPA report)

Stages of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle (from the EPA report)

The vulnerabilities cited by the report include:

These are all issues that we have discussed regularly on this site. I’ve provided some links above to posts on the site that provide examples of these issues.

So now what happens?
The next steps in the formal EPA process include:

  • The draft study now goes through a process of review by the EPA Science Advisory Board, which includes a thorough review of the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA
  • The draft is opened to public review and comment.
  • The report will be accepted

Once the report is accepted, the EPA can use it adopt appropriate regulations on federal lands.

The oil and gas industry isn’t going to take this lying down
I’m delighted that this report has been released, and that it utilizes scientific data to get at the truth about the dangers to water caused by hydraulic fracturing.

But the formal EPA process isn’t all that’s about to happen. Here’s what else is coming: the study will be attacked relentlessly by the oil and gas industry, and by Senators and Congresssmen who benefit from large contributions from that industry. The report will languish, get watered down, and might not even survive.

If rules are enacted based on the accepted report, those rules will be attacked in court. We’ve seen this happen over and over again with the EPA and other federal agencies. Over the last several years, the EPA has backed away from taking any substantive position that will make a definitive assessment of the dangers of fracking. Here are clear examples of how the EPA has buckled under industry pressure:

  • Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.
  • Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.
  • Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.
  • Failed to enforce a long-standing statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking until last month, after the use of diesel has become obsolete in the industry.

Most recently, in March of this year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued new rules regarding fracking on federal lands. These rules were directed at two of the exact issues identified in today’s assessment: well casing requirements and the management of wastewater.

And what has happened since then? Not only has the oil and gas industry sued to block these rules, but the states of Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota have joined the suit.

It is questionable whether the BLM rules will ever be implemented.

Criticism of the EPA study
There is already considerable criticism of this study, much of it based on design flaws related to the refusal of the oil and gas industry to participate in “prospective” studies.

A prospective study is one which seeks to assess the association between a hypothesized risk factor and an outcome by sampling both exposed and unexposed subjects (or intervention and non-intervention groups) and then following them for the period of study. In other words, get baseline data for a small number of wells, some in fracking areas and some not, and then test the water before, during and after drilling.

groundwater-e1376937616578Prospective studies were included in the EPA project’s final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. The problem is that you can’t do a prospective study without cooperation from the oil and gas companies.

As the political climate changed in their favor, the oil companies become less willing to cooperate. Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 and were more sympathetic to oil interests. And in 2012, President Obama was running for election and touting the economic benefits of fracking. Nobody was going to push the oil and gas industry.

They dug in their heels and not a single company agreed to participate in the EPA study.

“We won’t know anything more in terms of real data than we did five years ago,” said Geoffrey Thyne, a geochemist and a member of the EPA’s 2011 Science Advisory Board.  “This was supposed to be the gold standard. But they went through a long bureaucratic process of trying to develop a study that is not going to produce a meaningful result.”

The oil companies, after refusing to cooperate, will likely jump on flaws in the study design to refute the findings.

Water consumption by county compared to water used by fracking. Click to enlarge.

From the EPA report, water consumption by county compared to water used for fracking. Click to enlarge.

And what about Montana?
Most of the regulation of hydraulic fracturing is done by states rather than the federal government. Over the last 20 years, Congress has gutted the protections of the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

But ideally, says Dr. Burke, “EPA’s draft assessment will give state regulators, tribes and local communities and industry around the country a critical resource to identify how best to protect public health and their drinking water resources.”

Can we expect that to happen in Montana?

Probably not.

To date Montana has shown no interest in regulation that will protect drinking water. In fact, in its most recent session the Legislature rejected every significant bill that would have regulated oil and gas activity in the state. These included protections for water testing, well setbacks from residences, surety bonds for operators, and the use of closed loop system well design.

It is also well established the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), the agency with primary responsibility for permitting oil and gas wells, is in the business of promoting the drilling of oil and gas wells for profit, and has no interest in regulation that protects landowner rights.

The answer is local regulation
Yesterday’s EPA report is the latest step in the growing scientific evidence that links fracking to water contamination. But for those of us concerned about the dangers imposed by fracking to our properties, our communities and our water, it is small consolation.

Montana provides a legal basis for local communities to regulate oil and gas activities. It is called citizen initiated zoning. Through this process, communities can act to protect themselves against the kinds of risks described in the EPA report. Communities are currently working through this process in several counties throughout Montana. But the process is fragile. It is subject to the whims of County Commissioners and a nationwide movement by the oil and gas industry to wipe out all local control of oil and gas.

Landowners should have a right to protect their properties.

Additional resources
Executive summary of EPA report
EPA final report (600 pages)
Report appendices
Published scientific studies associated with the report
FAQ on the study

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