Interview: The Gas Patch with John Fenton

John Fenton, Pavillion Wyoming

John Fenton

I have a number of topics percolating, but I want to share this video that found its way to my mailbox today. It’s an interview with John Fenton of Pavilion, Wyoming about his experiences with the oil and gas industry and how they have changed his life, first for worse and then, in a transformational sense, for the better.

We’ve written about John in the past. We’ve described his personal story and how politics has trumped science in Pavilion, and encouraged you to attend an event in Red Lodge at which he spoke.

But we can’t do justice to John’s story the way he can. The video is an eighteen minute description of the events that changed his life. I can’t recommend it enough to those who live in communities where oil and gas drilling is being considered. It is sobering and hopeful, and perhaps it will spur you to action.

The video is part of a series by Heidi Hutner called Coffee with Hx2. Hutner is the director of the Sustainability Studies Program and Associate Dean in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University in New York.

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New study links fracking to migraines, fatigue, sinus problems

New research suggests that Pennsylvania residents with the highest exposure to active natural gas wells are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a combination of migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms and severe fatigue.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reporting online today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, say their findings add to a growing body of evidence linking the fracking industry to health problems.

fracking071816The research reminds us that Montana is one of the few oil and gas producing states with no mandated minimum distances, or setbacks, between wellheads and occupied buildings. The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation recently considered the issue of setbacks, but decided to require only notification of residents when a well is about to be drilled nearby. Carbon County recently became the first county in Montana to pass a county-wide setback restriction as part of the County’s growth plan revision.

Debilitating impacts
“These three health conditions can have debilitating impacts on people’s lives,” says author Aaron W. Tustin. “In addition, they cost the health care system a lot of money. Our data suggest these symptoms are associated with proximity to the fracking industry.”

For their study, Tustin and his colleagues created a questionnaire and received responses from 7,785 adult primary care patients of the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The questionnaires were returned between April and October of 2014. The researchers found that 1,765 respondents (23 percent) suffered from migraines, 1,930 people (25 percent) experienced severe fatigue and 1,850 (24 percent) had current symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis (defined as three or more months of nasal and sinus symptoms).

The researchers used publicly available well data to estimate participants’ exposure to the fracking industry. Their models accounted for the size and number of wells, as well as the distance between wells and people’s homes. While no single health condition was associated with proximity to active wells, those who met criteria for two or more of the health conditions were nearly twice as likely to live closer to more or larger wells.

Brian Schwartz

Brian Schwartz

“We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,” says the study’s senior author Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “We need to find a way to better understand the correlation and, hopefully, do something to protect the health of these people.”

But, he said, “there have now been seven or eight studies with different designs and in different populations, and while none is perfect, there is now a growing body of evidence that this industry is associated with impacts on health that are biologically plausible.”

Previous research conducted by Schwartz and colleagues has linked the fracking industry to increases in premature births, asthma attacks and indoor radon concentrations.

Tustin and his colleagues say there are plausible explanations for how fracking could cause these health conditions. Well development generates air pollution, which could provoke nasal and sinus symptoms. This type of drilling also produces stressors such as odors, noise, bright lights and heavy truck traffic. Any of these stressors could increase the risk of symptoms. Migraine headaches, for example, are known to be triggered by odors in some individuals.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of millions of liters of water into deep rock formations to liberate natural gas or petroleum. Energy companies moved toward fracking in the early 2000s when natural gas prices were high and supplies were low. Pennsylvania has embraced the industry. Over 9,000 fracking wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past decade. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded rapidly in recent years in states such as Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, West Virginia and Ohio. In contrast, New York has banned fracking and Maryland has delayed well production.

Maryland’s fracking moratorium is set to expire in October 2017. The moratorium was passed in 2015 out of concern about fracking’s potentially negative environmental effects, before the more recent health studies were completed. Schwartz says Maryland regulators should consider these new scientific findings when they decide whether to allow drilling.

“The moratorium was put in place before we even knew that there were health effects associated with these wells,” Schwartz says. “Now that we do, regulators need to carefully consider their next steps.”

A growing body of evidence
This study is part of a growing body of evidence that oil and gas drilling has substantial negative impacts on human health.

A recent analysis by PSE examined 685 peer reviewed studies on fracking. They  concluded that:

  • 84% of public health studies contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes;
  • 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination;
  • 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations.

Montana remains woefully behind in protecting its residents from these health effects.

Based on “Study: Fracking associated with migraines, fatigue, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms,” John Hopkins University.

Time for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to step up on setbacks
A win for local activists: Carbon County passes county-wide oil and gas regulations
Time for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to act on chemical disclosure

The oil and gas industry’s predictable attack on this study: Activists’ own research contradict claim of link between fracking and sinus conditions, migraines, fatigue in Drillbit Media

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The Yellowstone River closing: this is what climate change looks like

Click to read the FWP release on the closure.

Click to read the FWP release on the closure.

A microscopic parasite is destroying the fish population of the Yellowstone River system, causing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to take the extraordinary step of closing a 183-mile stretch of the Yellowstone and its tributaries to all water-based recreation (fishing, wading, floating, tubing, boating). The closure affects the river from Gardiner, at the north end of Yellowstone Park, to Laurel, and includes the Stillwater, Boulder, and Shields rivers.

In the past 10 days, FWP has discovered over 2000 dead mountain whitefish along this stretch of river, and expects that the total kill will climb to the “tens of thousands.” According to FWP, the kill is beginning to impact some rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

The parasite is tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae, which causes proliferative kidney disease (PKD) in salmonids, one of the most serious diseases to impact whitefish and trout. According to FWP, the disease can be 20-100% fatal in trout.

The closure will have a dramatic impact on Montana’s outdoor recreation economy, which is responsible for more than 64,000 jobs and nearly $6 billion in yearly economic activity. In stressing the urgency of the situation, Governor Bullock stated, “We must be guided by science. Our state cannot afford this infectious disease to spread to other streams and rivers and it’s my responsibility to do everything we can to stop this threat in its tracks and protect Montana jobs and livelihoods.”

FWP will continue to monitor the river and will lift the closure when stream conditions such as flow and temperature improve and fish mortality ceases.

Water flows on the Stillwater are at an extremely low level, as you can see from our deck.

The Stillwater is at an extremely low level, as you can see in this photo taken from our deck.

This is what climate change looks like
The parasite is native to the northern US, Canada and Europe, but outbreaks have not been common. According to FWP, there have been only two isolated PKD outbreaks in Montana in the last 20 years.

Why such a huge outbreak, and why now?

According to the FWP release, the effect of the disease on Yellowstone’s fish populations is exacerbated by other stressors like near record low flows, consistent high temperatures, and the disturbance caused by recreational activities.

We know that these stressors are extreme:

  • The area of the Yellowstone River system that has suffered the PKD outbreak is suffering from extreme drought conditions. According to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Water Conservation, Sweetgrass, Stillwater, and Yellowstone counties — the primary locations of the closure — are all suffering from extreme drought as of July, 2016.
Source: Montana DNRC

Source: Montana DNRC. Download.

  • As we have reported on this site, 2014 and 2015 were the hottest years in recorded global history, and 2016 will set a new record. In fact, we have had over 30 consecutive months of record temperatures. These temperature increases have been felt in Montana. According to the federal government, average spring temperatures in the state have risen by almost 4°F over the last 55 years; summer temperatures have risen by over 1°F during the same period.
  • Source: US Geological Survey

    Source: US Geological Survey. Click to enlarge.

    Drought and increased temperatures reduce river water flows. I can see this looking out my back deck at the Stillwater. It is lower than it has been in years.

    The chart at right depicts Stillwater River water levels at Absarokee over the last week. Average river levels over 81 years are shown in the triangles at the top; current levels are shown by the blue line.

We also know that these conditions are not temporary. Droughts, warmer temperatures, and lower river flows are part of our future.

According to the article “Life cycle complexity, environmental change and the emerging status of salmonid proliferative kidney disease,” published in the journal Freshwater Biology in June, 2010:

“Environmental change is likely to cause PKD outbreaks in more northerly regions as warmer temperatures promote disease development, enhance bryozoan biomass and increase spore production, but may also reduce the geographical range of this unique multihost-parasite system. Coevolutionary dynamics resulting from host–parasite interactions that maximise fitness in previous environments may pose problems for sustainability, particularly in view of extensive declines in salmonid populations and degradation of many freshwater habitats.”

There are those in Montana who will say that this is an unfortunate chance outbreak of this disease, but it isn’t. This is what climate change looks like. It means that, as the conditions that promote diseases like PKD proliferate, so will future outbreaks of these and other diseases.

For those of us concerned about the future of this region it is a reminder that we need to guard against activities that can threaten our water. This includes oil and gas drilling, but many other activities as well. As Governor Bullock says, “We must be guided by science.”

The science is clear.

Related: Study: Native trout populations endangered by global warming
Congratulations! You’ve just lived through the hottest year on record. Again.
Comparing the 2016 US presidential candidates on climate change

Update August 23: Excellent article in The Atlantic on the unique nature of the parasite responsible for the shutdown, “A Tiny Jellyfish Relative Just Shut Down Yellowstone River.”

Billings Gazette: “Yellowstone fish-killing parasite is so prolific it’s ‘shocking’ fish to death”

…(T)he immune response that the fish are expressing would suggest that they have not been exposed to this parasite previously….That has concerned us since it would suggest it’s a new infection. At least we haven’t seen anything on this scale previously.”

“The other thing that’s concerning is from the histology results there were high numbers of parasites seen in multiple tissues. That suggests to us that the infective load that’s currently out in the river is very high. Why that’s a concern is that the sheer volume of parasites that’s out there makes it very easy for the parasite to be spread to other waters.”

Update August 24: Our post is featured in an article on the river closure on, which describes the evolving parasite as a “tiny winner” of climate chance. The article includes an item from the British Natural History Museum, which is ” examining how bryozoans act as a source of a disease in salmon and trout that is increasing in prevalence and severity as a result of environmental change.”

Update September 1: FWP issued a release today that announced the opening of some closed sections of the Yellowstone. From the release:

The Yellowstone River and all of its tributaries downstream from the Highway 89 Bridge Fishing Access Site to the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel are open to all uses, with the exception of the Shields River and all of its tributaries, which remain closed to all public occupation and recreation per the original Aug. 19 closure in order to protect the Yellowstone cutthroat trout fishery. The mainstem Yellowstone River and all tributaries downstream from the Highway 212 bridge in Laurel were never part of a closure, and remain open to all uses.


According to the Billings Gazette, this includes the Boulder and Stillwater rivers.

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Time for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to act on fracking chemical disclosure

Last week a coalition of environmental organizations, landowners and public health advocates petitioned the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) to provide broader public disclosure of information about the chemicals used in fracking.

The coalition, represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice and led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Montana Environmental Information Center, requested the changes to BOGC rules to ensure that Montana citizens who live and farm near fracking operations have access to chemical information they need to safeguard their property, health, and environment.

Montana law gives citizens the right to petition state agencies such as the BOGC to request amendments to agency regulations. The petition will be presented at the BOGC’s August 11 meeting in Billings, after which the agency will have 60 days to take action.

Why this is important
The current BOGC rules related to chemical disclosure were established in 2011. They require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking after a well is drilled, and allow operators to keep confidential any chemical information they claim to be a trade secret.

These rules put Montanans at a considerable disadvantage in protecting themselves from possible harm from oil and gas drilling for two important reasons:

  1. If water contamination occurs during drilling and a landowner tries to prove legal liability for damage, the law requires that the water be tested before and after drilling occurs. If contamination is caused by drilling, the landowner must prove that contaminating chemicals in the water were not present in the baseline testing conducted before drilling occurs. To conduct appropriate baseline testing, the landowner needs to know what chemicals to test for. Without prior knowledge of the chemicals to be used in drilling, the landowner could do everything possible to protect his water, but fail to test for the specific chemicals that are used.  (Related: Report from the water testing seminar in Lewistown)
  2. The current rules allow operators to keep secret the identity of any chemical used in fracking by designating it a “trade secret.” There is no independent review of these exclusions — companies can independently decide what chemicals they do not disclose. By contrast, Wyoming changed its rules in 2015 to require an independent review by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission of any chemical a company seeks to keep secret.
Katherine O'Brien

Katherine O’Brien

These are common sense reforms that would protect landowners from potential harm. As Katherine O’Brien, the Earthjustice attorney who drafted the petition on behalf of the coalition put it, “Montanans have the right to know what is being pumped into the ground around their homes, farms, and ranches.”

Reaction in Montana
The press reaction to these proposed changes has been strongly positive. In an August 2 editorial, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle declared:

“Think about this: Would we even allow natural resource extraction companies to dump hazardous chemicals into our lakes or rivers? Or would we allow them to spew toxic pollution into the air without any restrictions?

“And yet somehow it’s just fine to allow them to pump these pollutants deep into the earth and we’re not even allowed to know what they are. It’s a testament to the lobbyists for the oil and gas companies that they were able to persuade state and federal legislators to enact laws that protect the firms from revealing these chemicals.”

Jessica Sena

Jessica Sena

Reaction of the oil and gas industry
The oil and gas industry is determined to oppose any change in rules. In a recent guest editorial in the Sidney Herald, Jessica Sena, a frequent spokesperson for the industry whose dog and pony show  we have already seen along the Beartooth Front, lays out a position that she could have written in her sleep: the 2011 disclosure rules are just fine, and besides, fracking is completely safe because there is “no evidence of ‘fracking’ fluids permeating the thousands of feet of bedrock which separate frac zones and drinking water acquirers.”

Regular readers of this site will recognize this statement as the oil and gas industry’s great lie. They take a single type of water contamination that is almost impossible to prove, and for which the industry has stonewalled government attempts to prove, and say that contamination never occurs.

She trots out all the tired old industry standards: the Lisa Jackson quote, and comparing the fracking industry need for trade secrets to KFC and Coca-Cola, both of which long ago joined the 21st century by releasing their “secret” formulas.

This is complete and total nonsense, and Sena should be ashamed to trot out the same old antiquated arguments.

Peer-reviewed scientific studies on fracking by year. Source

Peer-reviewed scientific studies on fracking by year. Source

Scientific studies prove impacts of fracking
Here is the scientific proof about the relationship between fracking and its impacts on air, water and community health.

Since the fracking/horizontal drilling boom began in the United States began about ten years ago, it has taken science time to catch up with our experience. But it is catching up. When Montana disclosure rules were set up in 2011, there were almost no peer-reviewed scientific studies on water and public health impacts caused by fracking. But since that time, there have been at least 685 papers published in peer-reviewed journals regarding the impacts of oil and gas drilling.

Of these studies:

  • 84% of public health studies contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes
  • 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination
  • 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations

The oil and gas industry undoubtedly knows this data, yet chooses to lie to the public about the impact of drilling.

The BOGC needs to act
We have often discussed the inadequacies of the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation on this site. It is not serving the people of Montana and is in need of substantive reform.

Last summer the BOGC was presented with another rulemaking petition, on minimum distances, or setbacks, of wellheads from occupied buildings. Despite the fact that most oil and gas producing states, including Wyoming and North Dakota, have minimum setback rules, the BOGC decided to require only notification of property owners, not minimum setbacks, leaving Montana far behind other states in protecting its citizens.

The Board of Oil and Gas Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

The Board of Oil and Gas Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

The new rules proposed in the fracking disclosure petition are reasonable, they are in line with what neighboring states are doing, and they do not impose an undue burden on industry. The BOGC needs to act to protect Montanans.


Posted in Fracking Information, Health impacts | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A win for local activists: Carbon County passes county-wide oil and gas regulations

The Carbon County Commissioners today passed new regulations to protect citizens from the dangers of oil and gas drilling, a significant win for local activists. The Development Regulations update, the first since 1989, follows the County’s adoption of an updated Growth Policy last year.

Key provisions of the new regulations include:

  • Requires an approved site plan prior to the issuance of a conditional use permit, which would be a matter of public record before a permit is granted. This is not required today.
  • Provides landowners the right to receive baseline water testing, paid for by the driller before drilling begins. This is critical to determining the cause of any future contamination.
  • Establishes a 750-foot minimum distance, or setback, of oil and gas development from homes, and
  • Ensures dust control on roads used for hauling near drilling sites, with mitigation plans approved on a case by case basis.
Susann Beug, Chair, Carbon County Resource Council

Susann Beug, Chair, Carbon County Resource Council

Tireless activists
The regulations mark a rare Montana victory for the tireless activists in Carbon County who have worked on landowner protections for nearly three years since Energy Corporation of America announced plans to “bring a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front. These activists, most members of the Carbon County Resource Council, an affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council, have been relentless in pursuing change.

They attended meeting after meeting of the County Planning Board, working to adopt these regulations against opposition that gradually lost steam. They attended regular County Commissioner meetings, and testified before the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation. These regulations simply would not have happened without them.

In addition, a group of local residents organized and obtained signatures to protect their rights by establishing a citizen initiated zoning district in the Silvertip area of Belfry. When the County rejected the landowners’ application, the landowners filed suit and eventually took the case all the way to the Montana Supreme Court.

In the end, the constant pressure has paid off, and the Commissioners relented. This is a real win for Carbon County citizens. The new regulations afford genuine protections that are not provided by other Montana laws, and they would not have happened without the dedicated work of these local activists, people like Susann Beug, Deb Muth, Becky Grey, Carol Nash, Julie Holzer and Bonnie Martinell, and Maggie Zaback of Northern Plains.

The Commissioners, who began the process adamantly opposed to regulation, deserve recognition for adapting to the will of County landowners. Brent Moore, who managed the planning process, also deserves credit for being open to regulation from the beginning.

Still much more to do
But it is important to recognize that protection against oil and gas drilling is an endless battle, and these rules are a small step in a long fight. Specifically,

This is why local activists need to keep working on local solutions to ensure broader protections, as is happening in Stillwater County, where residents continue to grapple with the County Commissioners over procedural issues related to their application with citizen initiated zoning.

But in the meantime, it is important to recognize that local activism bears fruit. It’s not easy, and requires commitment over the long haul. All credit goes to those who worked to make this happen. Local residents should thank them for their work.

As Susann Beug says, “We know that oil and gas developers will be back, and when that happens we want them to do it right.”

The updated regulations have been posted to the Carbon County website. You can download a copy, or review the history of the development of the regulations.

Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Tesla just killed the gasoline powered car

1920 Ford Model T

1920 Ford Model T

Tesla Motors killed the gasoline-powered car last week. The Silicon Valley company accomplished this feat without delivering a single automobile. But as sure as Henry Ford killed the horse and buggy by mass producing an affordable Model T a century ago, Tesla’s announcement of its Model 3 means we’re approaching the end of the internal combustion engine.

The proof is in the astonishing public reaction to the announcement of a car that will sell for $35,000, and won’t even enter into production until late 2017. In the first weekend after the announcement, 276,000 buyers put down a $1000 non-refundable deposit for a car they won’t be able to see for two years.

This is by far the fastest growing order book in the history of the auto industry. It’s more cars ordered in four days than General Motors delivers in a month. It’s not surprising — Tesla promises to deliver features that are obviously exciting to the mainstream market:

  • 215 miles of range per charge, a significant technological advance
  • acceleration from 0 to 60 in six seconds
  • seating for five people
  • autopilot features
  • an interior design that will “feel like a spaceship,” according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

To give an idea of how the numbers have blown past projections, Musk tweeted, “token of appreciation for those who lined up coming via mail. Thought maybe 20-30 people per store would line up, not 800. Gifts on order.”

Tesla Model 3

Tesla’s success is the clearest sign that the market wants to move quickly to electric cars, but there are other signs as well:

Doubters should recognize that what we’re talking about here is global market disruption, not excess government regulation, and the impact will be tremendous. Vehicle consumption currently accounts for about 70% of our oil usage in this country. The rise of the electric car and the death of the internal combustion engine will change our energy landscape forever.

Watch the video to take a test drive in the gas-powered car killer.


Posted in Clean energy | Tagged , | 6 Comments

How Montanans stopped the largest new coal mine in North America

This article, written by Nick Engelfried at, is reposted with permission of the author. While it does not directly deal with oil and gas issues, it is an inspiring story of Montana communities working together against seemingly-insurmountable odds to overcome an energy giant.

Protesters block a coal train from entering downtown Missoula in 2015. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Protesters block a coal train from entering downtown Missoula in 2015. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Montana communities won a victory against one of the world’s biggest coal companies earlier this month, when Arch Coal abandoned the Otter Creek mine – the largest proposed new coal strip mine in North America. The story of how the project imploded is one of people power triumphing over a company once thought to be nearly invincible.To many observers, the Otter Creek project once seemed unstoppable.

It certainly appeared that way in 2011, the year I moved to Missoula, Montana for graduate school. Then-Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer enthusiastically supported the mine, and coal more generally. Forrest Mars, Jr., the billionaire heir to the Mars candy fortune, had just joined Arch and BNSF Railways in backing a proposed railroad spur meant to service Otter Creek. Arch and politicians like Schweitzer predicted a boom in coal demand from economies in Asia.

But what they weren’t counting on was a vocal and active region-wide opposition. The coming together of ordinary people — first in southeast Montana, then an ever-growing number of communities throughout the Northwest —to oppose the Otter Creek mine says much about how land defenders and climate activists are learning to fight back against the planet’s biggest energy companies. The roots of this recent victory go back more than 30 years.

Origins of the Otter Creek mine
Eastern Montana is known for its arid climate, but the Tongue River Valley just north of the Wyoming border supports a lush landscape of willows, pines, sagebrush and grassy pastures. The river and underground aquifers make the valley ideal for agriculture. On the east side of the river, where the Otter Creek tracts are located, a mix of state and private land supports farms and cattle ranches. To the west is the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Decades before Arch proposed the Otter Creek mine, Southeast Montana was already ground zero in a fight over the nation’s energy future. In 1971, as the United States looked for alternatives to foreign oil, the Bureau of Land Management published a study calling for massively increased coal production in northern Plains states. It proposed building 21 new coal-fired power plants in Montana and opening vast new mines to feed them. Implicit was the assumption that energy developers would run into little resistance in the sparsely populated Plains.

Corporate representatives tried to persuade ranching families to sell their land for mines, then threatened them with eminent domain. However, many landowners didn’t back down. “I told that son-of-a-bitch with a briefcase that I knew he represented one of the biggest coal companies and he was backed by one of the richest industries in the world, but no matter how much money they came up with, they would always be $4.60 short of the price of my ranch,” said landowner Boyd Charter, according to Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that formed in 1972 to oppose the mining. By the end of the decade only one major new coal plant had broken ground in Montana, and plans to turn the state into a large-scale coal sacrifice zone were in tatters.

Then, in the 1980s, the coal industry proposed a new Tongue River Railroad to link northern Wyoming coal fields to existing Montana rail lines. The plan floundered for decades amid local opposition, but in 2011 the Tongue River Company was bought up by Arch Coal, BNSF Railways and Forrest Mars, Jr. Mars, who owns a private ranch in area, formerly opposed the railroad but apparently bought in with the understanding that the preferred route would be shortened to not cross his property. Instead of hauling Wyoming coal, this new version of the Tongue River Railroad would service Arch’s Otter Creek mine. The coal industry would try again to turn Montana into a coal extraction colony.

Their plan was helped along the previous year, in March 2010, when the Montana State Land Board, chaired by Gov. Schweitzer, voted on whether to lease state lands at Otter Creek to Arch. Ranchers concerned about damage to aquifers, high school students worried about climate change and other concerned citizens at the meeting urged the board to vote no. Just before the vote, activists from Northern Rockies Rising Tide disrupted proceedings by chaining themselves to Land Board members’ desks. The protest drew attention to what was at stake. But Land Board members reconvened and voted 3-2 in favor of the lease.

Now all Arch needed to break ground was a mining permit from the state, and a permit to build the Tongue River Railroad from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. The battle lines were drawn.

From Tongue River to the coast
What happened at Otter Creek would affect communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Coal train traffic through the area was already up, hauling coal from existing Wyoming and Montana mines to British Columbia ports. If Otter Creek and a series of proposed new coal export terminals in the United States were built, the number of these trains would skyrocket.

“I noticed more and more coal trains rumbling past my home,” said Lowell Chandler, who was a senior at the University of Montana and lived next to the railroad in Missoula when I met him in 2011. “They were polluting my air with toxic diesel emissions and coal dust. Then I found out about the massive coal export proposals in my state and the Northwest region.”

In places like Missoula, disproportionately lower-income neighborhoods are directly across the street from the railroad. An industrial yard used to refuel trains and connect and reconnect train cars is a major source of pollution. Residents told of sounds like bombs going off in the middle of the night as rail cars were joined together, of coal dust on their windowsills, and of choking on diesel fumes from idling locomotives.

I joined Chandler and other UM students in starting a group called Blue Skies Campaign in 2011, to work in coordination with rail line neighborhood residents and push back against the coal trains. Blue Skies’ first action was a protest outside a Wells Fargo, at the time a major coal industry funder. Later we partnered with Northern Plains Resource Council and other groups on a coal trains forum that drew over 200 people. We organized to attend city council meetings, coordinated rallies, and held street theater and protests. But we knew we had to do more.

In August 2012, Blue Skies coordinated the largest energy-related nonviolent civil disobedience in Montana up to that time. The Coal Export Action, a five-day sit-in at the State Capitol, was a protest against leasing of state lands to coal companies. Twenty-three people were arrested and hundreds more attended to show support. “Before putting my body on the line during a sit-in, I had never participated in nonviolent civil disobedience,” said Corey Bressler, a UM student arrested on the second day. “This swelling of people sent a powerful message to decision makers that Montanans and Americans want to shift away from fossil fuels toward a greener future.”

 Activists protesting on the train tracks in April 2014. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Activists protesting on the train tracks in April 2014. (Blue Skies Campaign)

The next few years saw rail line communities turn to direct action repeatedly. Protests on the railroad tracks delayed coal trains, with a 2015 blockade preventing a train from entering downtown Missoula for almost an hour. In April 2014, 1,500 Montanans in more than a dozen communities rallied in a day of actions for clean energy. Other rallies and smaller protests occurred with increasing regularity. “There is personal power in a collaborative response to a shared threat,” said Cate Campbell, a retired railroad brakeman from Frenchtown, Montana who was arrested multiple times. “In taking direct action I found an inner feeling of purpose and commitment.”

Meanwhile, Montana had just experienced some of its worst-ever droughts and fire seasons, moving climate change to the forefront of the coal debate. In 2013 a new group, 350-Missoula (a grassroots affiliate of the climate group made stopping the Otter Creek mine its priority.

350-Missoula – a group of retirees, teachers, nurses, educators and others – worked with Blue Skies to organize rallies and civil disobedience. They also pushed elected officials to take a side in the Otter Creek fight. In 2014, Missoula’s City Council formally asked that environmental reviews for Otter Creek and the Tongue River Railroad include public hearings in Missoula. Local state legislators supported this request. In Whitefish (along Montana’s northern rail line) groups like Glacier Climate Action persuaded their city council to take similar action.

In the summer of 2015, the Surface Transportation Board opened a public comment period on the Tongue River Railroad. Activists in Missoula tabled at public events and street corners, gathering more than 4,000 written comments. Groups throughout the Northwest sent alerts to their members. Legislators and local governments, including the city of Missoula and Missoula County, submitted concerns about coal trains.

Communities closest to the mine site mobilized. Public hearings in Ashland and Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, were attended by 100 and 300 people respectively (the total populations of Lame Deer and Ashland are about 1,000 and 800). Most attendees were Northern Cheyenne members opposed to the railroad. The coal industry had tried to win over residents with promises of jobs, but these efforts seemed to have failed miserably. Toward the end of the comment period, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Tongue River Railroad.

More than 100,000 comments were submitted by groups opposed to the railroad before the comment period ended. That fall, over a hundred people representing most of Montana’s major towns gathered at the State Capitol for a “Keep It In The Ground” climate rally. Meanwhile, regional and global pressures on Arch Coal compounded local opposition to the mine, changing the equation in an approval process that had once seemed inevitable.

The decline of King Coal
In 2010, Arch Coal competitor Peabody announced “coal’s best days are ahead.” However, it was clear even then that a combination of grassroots organizing, new regulations for polluting power plants, and falling prices for cleaner energy was causing U.S. coal use to drop. What came as a surprise was that coal consumption in Asia, especially China, failed to make up for declining U.S. demand.

Some racism was implied in the coal industry’s assumption that residents of China and India would willingly tolerate pollution levels unacceptable to North Americans. In fact, public concern about pollution created a crisis for the Chinese government. Last April, 10,000 people in China’s Guangdong Province turned out to protest a recently-built coal plant. The government has begun closing mines, reducing coal imports and ramping up renewables. China’s coal consumption declined 3 percent in 2014, and 4 percent in 2015. India’s coal use is still growing, but new power plants have run into such fierce opposition that many will likely never be built.

It turned out U.S. coal companies couldn’t even maintain export levels from a couple years ago. In 2015, Cloud Peak Energy announced it would stop exporting coal through British Columbia. In this environment, a series of announcements beginning late last year showed cracks forming in Arch’s Otter Creek plans.

Protesters march in Helena in September 2013. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Protesters march in Helena in September 2013. (Blue Skies Campaign)

In November, Arch announced it was asking the Surface Transportation Board to put the Tongue River Railroad permit review on hold. Companies rarely make requests like this when they are confident a review will go well for them. Statements from Arch claimed Otter Creek would still move forward, but an updated mining application Arch intended to file with the state in December never materialized. In January, Arch filed for bankruptcy.

Arch was just the latest (and biggest) U.S. coal company to go bankrupt in the last few years. The move was long anticipated, but now Montanans waited in suspense. Would this be the final blow to the Otter Creek mine, or would Arch find a way to salvage the project and turn the company’s troubles around?

On March 10, Arch announced it was suspending attempts to extract coal at Otter Creek. A statement released by Northern Plains Resource Council, from Otter Creek rancher Dawson Dunning, summed up the feelings of many locals: “Ranchers and irrigators in southeast Montana can sleep well knowing their water will be protected.”

A turning point?
“How many times have I read about projects that would increase carbon emissions, and felt helpless to stop them?” said Marta Meengs, a nurse who helped start 350-Missoula. “Otter Creek was different. People’s civil disobedience, tabling for public comments, and conversations with legislators actually showed results and helped stop what would have been one of the largest coal mines in North America.”

The defeat of the Otter Creek mine is one example of a larger, encouraging trend. Climate activists and land defenders are learning to take on the world’s biggest energy companies, fight huge fossil fuel projects, and win. Every industry loss strengthens the position of activists going into the next round, just as declining coal consumption in China contributed to the Otter Creek victory. And the fossil fuel industry is losing more and more often, from Shell and Arctic oil to TransCanada and the Keystone XL Pipeline to Arch Coal and Otter Creek.

The worldwide climate movement is driving down global carbon emissions in concrete, measurable ways. It’s a grassroots movement where people lead and government officials follow (when they show up at all). There’s still a long way to go before all remaining fossil fuels are left in the ground. But progress is undeniable, and we can expect more wins as the movement grows.

In the words of Lee Metzgar, a retired biologist and member of 350-Missoula who participated in the Otter Creek protests, “Our political system has demonstrated its inability to find adequate solutions to the climate crisis. It is time for everyone who wants to leave future generations a livable world to be in the streets.”

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New study warns we’re not moving fast enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change

Regular readers know that I try not to be alarmist about the issues I write about. I have a point of view, but try to back up my assertions with factual information you can check for yourself. So when I tell you that there is a new credible study that warns of an impending climate disaster, you should take notice. The study argues that the serious effects of climate change — sea level rise of several feet, followed by increases so large they would force humanity to flee the coasts — will occur over the next 50 years, not over the course of centuries as climate scientists currently believe.

Dr. James Hansen

Dr. James Hansen

The source is highly credible. Lead author in the study is Dr. James Hansen, retired NASA scientist and director of the Columbia University Climate Center. The paper, published in the European journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, was co-authored with 18 other scientists.

And when I say that Dr. Hansen is credible, you should know that he gained fame in 1988 when he  warned Congress that global warming had already begun. He was ahead of the scientific consensus at the time, but it became clear in retrospect that Earth had been in the midst of a period of rapid global warming at the time he testified.

Cataclysmic sea level rise
The study, released today, concludes that a 2° Celcius global temperature rise from pre-industrial levels will cause:

  1. Cooling of the Southern Ocean, especially in the Western Hemisphere;
  2. Slowing of the Southern Ocean overturning circulation, warming of the ice shelves, and growing ice sheet mass loss;
  3. Slowdown and eventual shutdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation with cooling of the North Atlantic region;
  4. Increasingly powerful storms; and
  5. Nonlinearly growing sea level rise, reaching several meters over a timescale of 50–150 years.

According to the study, these predictions, especially the cooling in the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic with markedly reduced warming or even cooling in Europe, differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments.

Current efforts insufficient
This is extremely disturbing in light of the landmark climate agreement reached in Paris last December. In that agreement 195 countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to keep global temperature increases “well below” 2°C (3.6°F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. If Hansen’s study is correct, that won’t be enough.

What’s more, global temperatures seem to have begun a period of rapid rise. The year 2015, like 2014, was the warmest year on record. And both January and February have been the warmest in history. As shown in the chart below, we have blown past a 1°C increase, and global 12-month average temperature is now 1.177°C above pre-industrial levels.

Global temperatures are rising rapidly. Source:

Before you sell your beachfront home, you should be aware that there is not universal acceptance of Dr. Hansen’s findings. But the study is now public, and it will be the topic of a furious public debate among scientists. Dr. Hansen has a track record of being correct, and his work underscores that we need to take our heads out of the sand and address climate change as a critical public policy issue.

I recommend that you watch the 15 minute video below, in which Dr. Hansen discusses the study. It’s dense at times, but it is a good primer on his work and will help you understand the study. We ignore it at our peril.


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Two Pennsylvania families win $4.2 million water contamination judgment against Cabot Oil and Gas

In a huge victory for landowners over the oil and gas industry, two families in Dimock, Pennsylvania were awarded $4.2 million in a lawsuit over water contamination from shale gas drilling. Dimock is the town made famous for its flammable water in the film Gasland.

The Ely family outside federal court in Scranton, PA. Photo © 2016 Laura Evangelisto

The Ely family outside federal court in Scranton, PA. Photo © 2016 Laura Evangelisto

Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation, the defendant in the suit, had denied that it was responsible for the contamination. They had settled a similar lawsuit in 2012 with 40 other residents on the same road, but, as is usually the case in this kind of lawsuit, the settlement had included a “non-disparagement” clause that prevents plaintiffs from speaking publicly about the case.

But two families who lived on the same road as those who settled held out from the settlement and continued to a jury trial, which was completed today.

Cabot Oil said it will appeal, accusing the jury of ignoring “overwhelming scientific and factual evidence that Cabot acted as a prudent operator in conducting its operations.” Cabot had contended that the methane occurring in families’ wells was naturally occurring.

The lawsuit was something of a David and Goliath affair. After their neighbors had settled, the two families were, for a time, forced to represent themselves because they couldn’t find an attorney willing to take on the suit. Ultimately they were represented by solo practitioner Leslie Lewis and attorney Elisabeth Radow against a team of litigators and attorneys from Norton Rose Fulbright, a London-based law firm which in 2014 was the seventh highest-grossing law firm in the world.

The Ely family will receive $2.75 million and the Hubert family $1.49 million. The judgment was limited by the court, which had previously ruled that the plaintiffs were not permitted to pursue Cabot for any harms done to their health, but only for damages to property and “personal nuisance.”

“This is a huge victory for the people of Dimock, but it’s also a sharp rebuke to the Obama administration for failing to fully investigate threats posed by fracking and dangerous drilling to water supplies in Pennsylvania and across the country,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Because of the EPA’s disturbing history of delay and denial, it took a federal jury to set the record straight about the natural gas industry’s toxic threat to our water.”

Congrats to the Hubert and Ely families. Their courage moves the fight against irresponsible oil and gas companies to a new level, and paves the way for future homeowners to protect themselves.

A personal story: Bob and Lisa Parr, Wise County, Texas



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Carbon County letter writer misuses information to make false arguments

I want to call your attention to a letter to the editor published in last week’s Carbon County News. It’s a great example of how people can completely misuse information to make false arguments.

You can read the letter here. The author’s main point is that a person who advocated against fracking two years ago, and who later had to be rescued after he was injured on the Beartooth Plateau, owes his survival to the fossil fuel industry.

I’m not making this up. Read it yourself.

This is a frequent refuge for those who believe that communities should do the bidding of oil and gas operators. I get a lot of comments on this site that go something like this, “If you hate oil and gas so much, you should stop driving a car,” or, “If you really believe the things you write, you should stop using all petroleum products.”

The intent of these people is to point out what they feel is the hypocrisy of those who want to protect their property, health and livelihoods by regulating oil and gas drilling.

They see the proposition as all or nothing. Either accept what the oil and gas companies do, or, as this letter writer suggests, go back to the days of Hugh Glass, the protagonist in The Revenant. Again, not making this up.

An oil rig in Carbon County today. Click to enlarge

An oil rig in Carbon County today. Click to enlarge

This, of course, is a false choice, and this letter writer, who has been active in Carbon County government, knows better. Nobody along the Beartooth Front is advocating an outright ban on drilling in the area. However, many recognize the need to shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy as quickly as possible.

This is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, and it’s also a market reality. As solar, wind and other technologies take hold, coal, oil and gas will become less necessary. This won’t happen immediately, but those of you who are alive in 2050 will see a completely different energy landscape, with a proliferation of rooftop solar and electric cars, and high percentages of energy generated off the grid. The market has already spoken on this — two of the four Colstrip coal plants will be closed within ten years.

Solar installation at Red Lodge Ales

Solar installation at Red Lodge Ales

What people and organizations along the Beartooth Front are advocating is not a ban, but local regulations that protect their properties in ways that federal and state law do not, such as:

  • Mandated minimum distances, or setbacks, of wellheads from occupied residences, schools and hospitals.
  • Regular testing of fresh water near wells to determine if contamination has occurred.
  • Regular testing of air near wells to determine if there are high levels of methane or other chemicals that create health risks for humans and animals.
  • Well design specifications to make sure that concrete casings do not leak, and so that produced water is disposed of safely.

That’s very different from a drilling ban. This is just people wanting to protect themselves from the frequent and well-documented potential damage from drilling. The reason that this is so critical now is that  improvements in fracking and horizontal drilling technologies are bringing drilling closer to where people live.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the area near Belfry. Oil companies have been drilling in the Elk Basin field on the Wyoming border south of Belfry for a century. But the well recently proposed in the Silvertip area was miles from Elk Basin and down the hill in an untouched community of small farms and ranches. Again, the letter writer knows better, yet pretends that companies are “look(ing) for oil in a place oil had been found and utilized for over 100 years.” It’s not the same place, and the impacts would be far different.

Elk Basin Gusher, 1917. Photo: American Heritage Center

Elk Basin Gusher, 1917. Photo: American Heritage Center

Oil prices will go up again, and that will likely make it profitable to drill in previously undisturbed areas along the Beartooth Front. It is the responsible thing for local communities to make regulations to protect themselves when that happens.

Reasonable people don’t waste time making false arguments and belittling their neighbors. They work together as community to do the right thing.

The long history of oil drilling in Elk Basin explains why local zoning is necessary
Third edition of fracking compendium includes over 100 new studies on the risks of fracking
Frequently Asked Questions about the Silvertip citizen-initiated zone
A visit to the front in the war on rural America
We’ve reached a tipping point: there are now more solar jobs than oil jobs

View Preserve the Beartooth Front video:

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