ACTION ALERT: Please write by September 20 to keep BLM from selling oil leases in Stillwater County

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to sell three oil and gas leases in Stillwater County in March, 2018. Two are in Dean (MTM 105431-HW, MTM 79010-8R) and one is on East Fiddler Creek (MTM 79010-JJ). A public comment period is now open. Please make your voice heard by sending in comments about the lease by Wednesday, September 20.

Your comment is critical. The last time a lease was considered in Dean, it wound up being deferred, partly because there were 40 letters sent to BLM opposed to drilling.

Comments should be emailed to:

Background: The BLM leasing process

BLM Billings Field Office

The Billings BLM Field Office (click to enlarge)

The BLM leasing process is governed by a resource management plan (RMP) and associated environmental impact statement (EIS). Together they provide a framework for managing BLM-administered lands and federal minerals. Stillwater County is part of the Billings BLM field office combined with the Pompeys Pillar National Monument, and are managed under an RMP that was revised in 2015.

The RMP guides management of approximately 434,000 acres of BLM land and 1.8 million acres of federal mineral estate managed by BLM for Big Horn, Carbon, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Wheatland and Yellowstone counties in Montana, and portions of Big Horn County, Wyoming.

This recent revision is important, since the RMP is only updated every 25 years or so. Changes to the RMP, along with the clear direction of the Trump Administration to remove regulation that block drilling, make it more likely that these leases will be approved than it was in 2014, the last team BLM leases were considered in Stillwater County.

Click on map to download BLM parcel maps for potential lease sales

Lease sales
Leases on BLM land are put up for sale when there is a request from a company that wants to exploit mineral resources. The process is governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions.

To meet NEPA requirements federal agencies prepare a detailed statement known as an environmental assessment. EPA reviews and comments on environmental assessments prepared by other federal agencies, maintains a national filing system for all assessments, and assures that its own actions comply with NEPA.

The environmental assessment involves two steps:

  1. Public Scoping: This step involves the community in determining whether there are environmental impacts that need to be considered. These impacts might include:
  • Significant natural resources such as ecosystems and threatened and endangered species;
  • Commercial and recreational fisheries;
  • Current recreational uses of the land and waterways;
  • effects on water users;
  • Effects of potential controls on current lake and waterway uses such as flood risk management, commercial and recreational navigation, recreation, water supply, hydropower and conveyance of effluent from wastewater treatment plants and other industries; and
  • Statutory and legal responsibilities relative to use of land and water.

2. Preliminary environmental assessment: Public review of preliminary environmental assessment. This process takes 30 days before the final environmental assessment.

Given the change in environment at BLM, there is a current push to evaluate these leases without the full EIS process.

Talking points to consider
In making your comments, you might want to consider some of these points. The first is most important.

  • Public process. A 15 day scoping period is inadequate for Dean and surrounding communities to properly evaluate this leases. There are significant issues that must be evaluated, and a full environmental impact statement is required. There are environmental and social and economic impacts that a lease decision will impose on this community that must be properly evaluated.
  • Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout Suitable Recovery Habitat. A thorough assessment of the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout (YCT) habitat in parcels MTM 79010-8R, MTM 79010-JJ, and MTM 105431-HW should be conducted.  As a priority wildlife species, yellowstone cutthroat trout warrant specific and strong action to protect and enhance not only existing habitat, but also potential YCT habitat. The high elevation waters of these parcels along the Beartooth Mountain Front are suitable to support coldwater fish like the YCT, and therefore should be opportunistically managed for YCT residency whether or not Meadow, Fishtail, Fiddler, and/or West Rosebud Creek are YCT-bearing waters at this time.

Considering BLM’s regulation requiring No Surface Occupancy (NSO) within ½ mile of YCT habitat, the BLM should analyze whether any oil and gas development could occur within or near these parcels without violating this requirement. We note that there has been excavation on a drill location very near the boundary of MTM 105431 HW and MTM 79010-8R. Two branches of Meadow Creek flow directly through these two parcels, and downstream from the lease parcel the two branches combine and the stream flows adjacent to the margin of the drill location excavation.  Meadow Creek flows into Fishtail Creek about one mile east of lease parcel MTM 105431 HW creating another potential impact area.  Similarly to the two adjacent parcels, the East Fork of Fiddler Creek flows through MTM 79010-JJ, which flows into West Rosebud Creek.

  • Maintenance of soil and wetland resources. Beyond concerns for the yellowstone cutthroat trout, the BLM should consider soil and wetland resources of these parcels. As previously indicated, Meadow Creek runs through parcels MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R, while East Fork of Fiddler Creek flows through MTM 79010-JJ and these parcels should be considered for their resource value.Furthermore, the land in these parcels as historically agricultural land, has significant resource value in maintaining healthful and productive soils. The value of the surface as productive rangeland should be evaluated in detail by the BLM before any oil and gas development is considered.
  • Historic preservation of the unincorporated township of Dean and surrounding ranch structures. As mentioned by the BLM in the proposed deferral in leasing of parcel MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R, the parcels include the unincorporated township of Dean. As a pioneer village with a history stretching back to the 19thcentury, the Dean site is potentially important to the history of both homesteading and mining in the area.  BLM should evaluate the historic resources represented by the Dean townsite, the Dean schoolhouse, and adjacent ranches as historic properties subject to compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.

In addition, the geologic feature adjacent to Dean on the west, Fishtail Butte is a site sacred to Native Americans, specifically the Crow Indians.  Crow oral histories indicate that this is a historic vision quest site attributable to the important Crow chief, Medicine Crow.  BLM should analyze this area as a potential Traditional Cultural landscape.

  • Socioeconomic impact on the Township of Dean and surrounding properties. The BLM should consider socioeconomic impacts to the modern unincorporated township of Dean. Over the past several years, the surrounding area has experienced a transition from a primarily ranching community to a mixed amenity-based pattern of land ownership, intermixed with the traditional ranching community.  The BLM should consider how oil and gas development could harm the new and developing community center Dean has become.Specifically, BLM should consider impacts to surrounding property values that are currently supported by unimpeded views and the aesthetics represented by the absence of light pollution and the spectacular viewshed of the Beartooth Mountains—one of the most iconic viewsheds of the Northern Rocky Mountain Front and even the nation.

The impact of industrial development should be considered in light of the positive economic impact of a new social group of property owners that are important to this immediate area, providing low impact increases to the tax base and general prosperity of the community. Additionally, the BLM should fully evaluate how the visual, auditory, and interference in the amenity values would affect Dean’s commercial base. The BLM should analyze how a well pad site located on or near (see above comment regarding cutthroat trout habitat) parcel MTM 105431-HW and MTM 79010-8R within view of Dean would impact its status as a community center.

  • Adjacent oil and gas leases. As noted above, SPA is aware that BLM lease parcel MTM 105431-HW is adjacent to other non-federal minerals and private oil and gas leases that have already seen the establishment of a pad for a presumed drilling location.  The potential for drainage problems notwithstanding, BLM should make its decision based on impacts to the resources mentioned above.  Other methods exist to address drainage besides a positive lease decision, even with NSO imposed, on a parcel that affects the important resource values already stated above.

Thanks for sending your comments. Public feedback plays a big part in these decisions. Again, comments should be emailed to:

Thanks to Cameron Clevidence at Northern Plains Resource Council for his help in putting together this post.

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

Do mineral rights have anything to do with citizen initiated zones in Montana?

As noted earlier this month, the Stillwater County Commissioners have found that the group seeking to form a citizen initiated zone in southern Stillwater County has collected the signatures of over 60% of the landowners in the proposed zone, the minimum threshold required by law. That is a major accomplishment by a dedicated group of volunteers over a long period of time, and a tribute to the commitment of local landowners to preserving their community.

Map courtesy Bert Sperling,

However, the Commissioners have questioned whether the mineral rights holders in the proposed district should be counted toward the 60% in addition to the freeholders, or landowners. They plan to request an opinion from Montana Attorney General Tim Fox on whether this is the case, which could delay action on the zone for a significant period of time.

The fact that the Commissioners feel this is an open question made me wonder whether this is really an issue in practice in Montana. After all, citizen initiated zoning has been allowed by the Legislature since 1953 (see page 8), and the process, requiring the signatures of “real property owners,” is well established in Montana law.

If the law has been in place for 64 years, other counties in Montana must be using it. Are they struggling with the same issue? I took a look at the web site for every county in the state to find out.

The counties listed below provide links to citizen initiated zones on their web sites. They sometimes call them by different names — special zones, Part 1 zones, RFIDs — but the listings all refer to special districts created under MCA § 76-2-101. Other counties may have citizen initiated zones as well, but they are not identified on their web sites.

County (population)                Number of citizen initiated zones
Yellowstone (158,437)                                        6
Missoula (116,130)                                            31
Gallatin (104,502)                                             23
Flathead (98,082)                                              1*
Ravalli (42,088)                                                41
Park (16,114)                                                       6
Stillwater (9,406)                                               1**
Dawson (9,327)                                                  2

* Not listed on website, but per email from a Flathead County planner
** Not listed on website, but the West Fork Stillwater District was formed in 1979. Petitions were signed by landowners only, and approved by the Stillwater Commissioners.

That’s at least 111 citizen initiated zones formed under the same Montana law used by the Stillwater petitioners. How many, I wondered, were formed by petitions of both surface and mineral owners?

So I looked at the citizen initiated zoning process for the counties that posted them, talked to the planning department and clerk and recorder of a number of them, and could find no indication that a single one of the 111 required the signatures of mineral rights holders. Many of the zones are decades old, but no one I spoke to had ever been involved with a zone that included mineral rights holders in the petition process.

There are very good reasons for this, of course. First, it’s a practical impossibility to find out who the mineral owners are. There are no databases of Montana mineral rights holders. We’ve often discussed the research it takes to find out who owns the mineral rights to your land. Imagine having to do a title search for the 600+ properties in the Stillwater Zone, tracking down the contact information of every fractional owner, and obtaining their signatures. And if you were successful, how could the County Clerk validate the signatures without doing a similar search?

And what about the existing 110+ citizen initiated zones in Montana, created by dedicated volunteers concerned about protecting their own properties and approved by their county commissioners? If the Attorney General decides that mineral owners need to be included, will they have to disband because they didn’t get the signatures of mineral holders?

The Montana Legislature established citizen initiated zoning over 60 years ago and has updated the code several times since then. You have to imagine that if  they had wanted mineral rights owners to be a part of this they would have specifically said so.

If counties around the state have been enacting these zones for decades without considering this question, why should this be an issue now?


  • Ravalli County, which has the largest number of citizen initiated zones, has established a very clear process for landowners who seek to establish a citizen initiated zone. It does not include mineral rights holders. Download.
  • Missoula County information regarding the creation of citizen initiated zones. The document specifically refers to the collection of signatures of freeholders, and mentions nothing about mineral rights holders.
  • An example of a 1994 resolution to create a Ravalli County zoning district. Note that on Page 11 the document refers to “freeholders” rather than “real property owners.”
  • A citizens guide to forming a zone in Sweet Grass County created in 1999 clearly specifies that it applies only to landowners.
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Stillwater County Beartooth Front Zoning District update

I will be writing more about this in the near future, but want to pass along this update from the Beartooth Front Oil and Gas Committee. This has been a long battle, slowed to a crawl by the Stillwater County Commissioners, who have raised delay to a fine art.

Proposed Beartooth District. Click to enlarge.

The Good News: The Stillwater County Clerk & Recorder has completed the signature verification for our Citizen Initiated Zoning District (CIZD) Petition and declared we have achieved over 60% of required landowner signatures within the proposed district. As you know, this was a huge effort, which took over a year to accomplish and many hurdles cleared along the way. Remember, our petition is not to stop oil and gas development, but to ensure it is done in a responsible manner to protect our water, air, property rights and county infrastructure. We could not have reached this milestone without your continued support – thank you!

The Bad News: Although we have achieved this important milestone, the County Attorney has now presented a new legal issue questioning whether mineral right holders should have been included in the total signature count. This was unexpected, and we have never seen a zoning petition with that requirement in Montana’s history. Until this issue is settled, the County Commissioners will not hold a public hearing to determine if our petition is “in the public interest and convenience.” We are frustrated, once again, by this eleventh-hour delay, and are pursuing a quick resolution by working with legal counsel.

What you can do: As soon as all legal issues are resolved, we will contact you again when the date for the public hearing is scheduled. This hearing is where the County Commissioners will determine the future of our Petition. Our Petition must be found by the Commissioners to be in the public interest and convenience and YOUR support is needed to make this happen!!!

Beartooth Front landowners present hundreds of signatures to Stillwater County Commissioners to set up oil and gas zoning district (with video) (11/11/2015)
Stillwater County Commissioners ignore County residents on issue after issue. This has to change (2/9/2016)
Watch the Preserve the Beartooth Front video:




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New federal report shows the extent and likely impact of climate change

A new draft report developed by scientists from thirteen federal government agencies and released this week states that the average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and substantially since 1980, and that it is “extremely likely” that nearly all of the global mean temperature increase since 1951 has been caused by human activity.

The report directly contradicts statements by the Trump Administration that the causes of global warming are uncertain, and that the impacts of climate change are impossible to predict.

According to the report, global annual temperature has increased by more than 1.6°F from 1880-2015, and average temperatures are higher than at any time in the last 1700 years. The report states that from 1951-2010 the average global mean temperature increase was 1.2°F, and the human contribution to warming during the same period was 1.1° to 1.3°F.

In the United States, the largest changes since 1900 have occurred in the western United States, where average temperatures increased by more than 1.5°F. The chart at left shows annual temperature differences from the average temperature from 1880-2015. Red bars show temperatures above the average for the period, and blue bars show temperatures below the average. Note that since 1980, not only have temperatures been above average every single year, but average temperatures have increased throughout the period.

What’s more, according to the report, “global climate is expected to change over this century and beyond. Even if humans immediately ceased emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, existing levels would commit the the world to at least an additional 0.5°F of warming over this century relative to today.”

If the report is correct, humans can control the amount of warming that occurs by emitting less greehouse gas into the atmosphere, with the magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades determined by the amount of greenhouse gases emitted globally. Within the next few decades however, temperatures will continue to rise — at least 2.5°F — even if we decrease carbon emissions dramatically.

The two graphs above show the temperature impact of different levels of carbon emissions. The graph on the left shows projected changes in annual carbon emissions in units of gigatons of carbon (GtC) per year, and the graph on the right shows the impact of the higher and lower scenario on temperature change. The implication is clear: if we do not dramatically change the level of emissions, we could see global temperature change of up to 10°F by the year 2100. If we begin immediately to reduce emissions, we can hold temperature increases to 2°F.

Other key findings:

  • Reductions in western US winter and spring snowpack are projected as the climate warms. Under high-emissions scenarios, “chronic, long-lasting hydrological drought is possible by the end of the century.”

click to enlarge

  • There will be fewer extreme cold days and more extreme hot days. The graph at right compares the average number of 100° days in Billings currently and the number that we can expect to see in future years under high emissions and low emissions scenarios. Under the high emissions scenario, we can expect nearly 50 days over 100° by the year 2100! (This model created by, and not part of the federal report. To see their model for other cities, click here.)
  • More than 90% of the extra heat being trapped inside the climate system by human emissions is being absorbed by the ocean, causing sea level rise. Global mean sea level has risen by about 8-9 inches since 1880, with about 3 inches of that rise occurring since 1990. Relative to the year 2000, sea level is very likely to rise by 3.6-7.2 inches by 2030; 6-14.4 inches by 2050; and 1-4 feet by 2100. In most projections, sea level will continue to rise beyond 2100 and even beyond 2200.
  • Because human activity is the primary cause of climate change, limiting global warming to 2° will require major reductions in emissions.  Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have now passed 410 parts per million, the highest since the Pliocene Era, approximately three million years ago, when global mean temperatures were 3.6° to 6.3°F higher than they are today.

There is much more in the report, and I recommend you read it. We have much to do if we are going to avoid climate disaster.

And to those of you who will write to tell me that this is a bunch of nonsense: this is science. The authors of the report are leading climate scientists who have employed the scientific method. The data that they analyzed is available to anyone who would like to analyze it and reach a different conclusion.

But keep this in mind: the planet is warming without any consideration for how people feel about science, politics, or religion.

Continue reading

Posted in Climate change | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

New long-term study shows 40% decline in native Wyoming deer population due to oil and gas drilling

An important new study shows that oil and gas activity can have severe negative long-term impacts on native wildlife.

click to enlarge

The study, “Mule deer and energy development—Long-term trends of habituation and abundance,” was published last month in Global Change Biology Journal. The authors tracked 187 mule deer for 17 years from 1998-2015 in the upper Green River Basin of western Wyoming, referred to as the Pinedale Anticline. The area is a prime wintering spot for thousands of mule deer, which annually migrate 20-100 miles from summer areas in four different mountain ranges.

The area comprises mostly federal lands (85%) administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Before 2001, this area was relatively undisturbed, with few roads and minimal human activity. Then, in July of 2000, the BLM approved development of 700 producing well pads, 645 km of pipeline, and 444 km of access roads. An additional 4400 wells were approved in 2008.

Photo: Dan Cepeda, Casper Star-Tribune

The results of the study are startling:

  • Click to enlarge

    The deer avoided the wells, staying 2-3 km away during most of the period studied. This avoidance led to a decrease in the habitat available to the deer. Well pad and road construction resulted in direct habitat loss to mule deer winter range of approximately 2,360 acres or 3.5% of the study area.

  • The mule deer population on the Pinedale Anticline declined by 36% over the 15-year development period.
  • The reduction in the herds led to a decline of 45% in the deer harvest taken by hunters during the period. Dale Gillespie, 57, who has hunted in the area all his life, says he hasn’t shot a deer in a decade. “You will lose generations of hunters,” he said. “If they don’t see anything, they will lose interest in the sport.”
  • The remaining deer are much smaller. They have declined in size by 40% since before the oil and gas boom.

The relationship between oil and gas development and the decline of the mule deer population in Wyoming represents one of the many unintended consequences of fossil fuel development. Communities contemplating or beginning development need to be aware of the importance of preserving the natural balance of each community’s way of life — ecological, social, economic — for the long term.

Download the study

Posted in Fracking Information, Health information | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Money is why Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement

President Trump announced today that the United States will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, a landmark agreement in which 195 countries, representing 95% of the world’s carbon emissions, agreed to voluntarily reduce emissions to control global warming. The US joins Syria and Nicaragua as the only three nations in the world not participating. Nice company.

Courtesy The Age

There is no question why Trump took this course. It has nothing to do with science (or he wouldn’t have taken this action). It has nothing to do with an “America First” foreign policy doctrine.

It’s about money. This week 22 US Senators wrote the President asking him to pull out of the agreement. Implementing the agreement, the letter said, would create “burdensome regulations” that would hinder oil, gas, and coal exploration, and keep Trump from rescinding the Clean Power Plan.

And who  were these 22 Senators? Big recipients of contributions from the oil and coal industries, that’s who. Pulling out of Paris is a way for politicians who have been bought by fossil fuel industries to protect their sugar daddies.  The chart below was created from data at, totalling donations from the 22 signatories in the 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles.

You have to wonder what these men will tell their grandchildren about the ultimate cost of choosing money over the environment.

You can tell them what you think at the ballot box in 2018 and beyond.

Related: From Washington to Helena, we subsidize the most profitable oil companies with billions of dollars of tax breaks and unnecessary subsidies

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Public opposition is going to keep the Keystone XL Pipeline from being built any time soon

If you thought Donald Trump was going to wave a magic wand and get the Keystone XL Pipeline built, you should recognize that there is no magic and the pipeline isn’t going to be constructed any time soon.

Ross Girling, CEO Transcanada Corp.

TransCanada Corp, the principal builder of Keystone XL, is still not prepared to offer a firm timeline for the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, its top executive said last week, even though President Trump granted the project a permit.  According to TransCanada CEO Ross Girling, the pipeline sits in the company’s “long-term bucket” because of the remaining difficulty in getting it done. One of the key difficulties is the strong opposition of those concerned about the environmental impact of the pipeline.

“We’ve been at (the Keystone XL) for a long time, so it’s hard to say with any credibility that we’re going to get it done by a date,” Girling told the company’s annual general meeting last Friday. He said that the company will focus on current projects instead.

Background: Keystone XL Pipeline
The Keystone Pipeline System runs from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois and Texas. It carries synthetic crude oil (syncrude) and diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the oil sands as well as light crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota and Montana.

The Keystone Oil Pipeline
(Click to enlarge)

Three phases of the project are in operation and the fourth, the controversial Keystone XL, would deliver oil from Hardesty, Alberta to  Steele City, Nebraska, cutting directly through the Bakken area in Montana. The fourth phase was rejected by President Obama in 2015 after environmentalists argued it would spur the development of Alberta’s oil sands and worsen climate change.

President Trump’s January 24, 2017 order to permit the pipeline is not all that is required to get it built. The fight is far from over in Nebraska, the one state in its path that has yet to approve the project.

The pipeline must still be approved by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which faces strong opposition from environmental groups and Native American tribes. They are concerned about the fragile Sandhills, and the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge groundwater supply. Despite general political approval in Nebraska, the activists have held off the Keystone XL to date through lawsuits, state and federal hearings, and the threat of protests patterned after those against the Dakota Access Pipeline showdown in North Dakota.


Public opposition has kept the Keystone XL from being built so far, and it will continue to stand in the way, despite whatever the current administration in Washington wants to do. TransCanada recognizes that it will take years to clear all the hurdles, and Trump’s order can be reversed by a subsequent US president, so the company is not willing to take unnecessary risk in committing to the pipeline.

Resistance works.

What you can do: Write the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Take the time today.

Update 7/28/2017: TransCanada may decide not to build Keystone XL, Lincoln (NE) Journal Star


Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

New scientific study shows fracking is strongly related to infant mortality

A new study published this week in the Journal of Environmental Protection shows, for the first time, a clear correlation between fracking and the death of newborn infants.

To download the study, click on the photo

The study investigated the association between fracking and the deaths of infants aged 0-28 days by county in Pennslyvania. The researchers compared early infant mortality during the period 2007-2010, after the fracking boom was in full swing, with a control period 2003-2006, before widespread fracking began. It further compared results in the ten most heavily fracked counties with the rest of Pennsylvania.

The study showed that infant deaths decreased by 2.4% across the state during this period. However, in the 82,558 births in the ten most-fracked counties, there was a significant increase in mortality (238 vs. 193, a 23.3% increase). These results are statistically significant at a 95% level of confidence.

Counties included in the study are the ones with the greatest activity, designated in red

According to the researchers, “There were about 50 more babies who died in these 10 counties than would have been predicted if the rate had been the same over the period as all of Pennsylvania, where the incidence rate fell over the same period.”

 Take a moment to grasp the significance of this. 50 babies died over three years because they happened to be born near a fracked well.

What caused these deaths?
As with many early scientific studies, this study proves only the correlation, not the direct cause of death. This is the way the scientific method works. The initial study shows a correlation; future studies will be required to show a direct cause.

However, data in the study directs areas for future research. The authors suggest that the process of fracking creates produced water, the combination of chemicals injected into the ground by drillers and naturally occurring radioactive chemicals from shale. These chemicals include radium, uranium, thorium, and radon.

According to the authors, “This produced water and backflow returns to the surface with a high load of dissolved and suspended solids including naturally occurring radioactive elements….The contaminated water has to be safely disposed of but this is often associated with violations of legal disposal constraints.”

In other words, the fracking process produces radioactive material that is sometimes not disposed of properly.

There is additional data in the study that suggests why this is important. The ten most fracked counties are split geographically: five are located in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania; five are located in the southwest. The increased rate of infant mortality in the five northeast counties was very large: from 36 to 60, a statistically significant 67%. In the five southwest counties, the increase was from 157 to 178, a much smaller 18%.

What the authors discovered was that what separated the two geographical areas was their reliance on private water wells. In the northeast, the number of water wells per birth ranged from 4.9 to 13.1, while in the southwest, there were many fewer, from 1.1  to 3 per birth.

In other words, many more families relied on private wells in the area where there was the largest increase in infant deaths.

Furthermore, they looked at violations of Pennsylvania laws on water disposal, and discovered that there were many more violations in the northeast than in the southwest, as shown in the chart below from the study:

So this is where the research points us.

In heavily fracked areas where there are more private wells and more violations of disposal laws, there are many more infant deaths.

Christopher Busby, one of the authors, concludes, “A major component of early infant mortality is congenital malformation, e.g., heart, neurological, and kidney defects. These are known to be caused by exposures to Radium and Uranium in drinking water.

“Infant death rates were significantly high in highly-fracked counties in northeast Pennsylvania, those with the greatest density of private water wells, suggesting it is drinking water contamination driving the effect.”

Joseph Mangano, the other principal researcher, added: “These results raise serious questions about potential health hazards of fracking, especially since the fetus and infant are most susceptible to environmental pollutants. This is a public health issue which should be investigated wherever fracking is being carried out or proposed.”

What are the implications for communities dealing with fracking in Montana?
These results add to the growing weight of evidence that we need to develop strong regulations to protect Montana landowners from the potential danger of poorly-controlled oil and gas operations:

  •  In Stillwater and Carbon Counties, there are no public water systems outside of the larger towns. In fact, in the area covered by the proposed Stillwater zone, all residents depend on private wells. This is similar to the situation in the northeast counties in Pennsylvania, where the greatest increase in deaths occurred.
  • We know that the driller most frequently associated with fracking in Stillwater and Carbon Counties, Energy Corporation of America, is one of those frequent violators in Pennsylvania. Their record is long and suspect — from 2005-2014, that company had 66 inspections with violations, 90 separate violations, and 55 enforcement actions, with fines totaling over $80,000 in Pennsylvania . You can download the report by clicking here. According to the report, many of the violations occurred in the ten counties in Pennsylvania that were studied.
  • We know that Montana has lax rules for water protection, and for notifying landowners of the chemicals used in fracking.
  • There are many spills that take place every year in oil and gas operations in Montana.

Any community in Montana that allows oil and gas operations must take precautions to protect itself.

In Stillwater County, Commissioners are currently evaluating a zone proposal by local residents that would establish regulations to protect the County’s water, agricultural/ranch land, and public health. They will hold a public hearing to the zone later this summer.

More to come…

Related: Unknown unknowns: the disturbing case of Vernal, Utah



Posted in Community Organization, Politics and History, Health impacts | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

New study shows much higher number of oil well spills than previously reported

Warning: This article is based on peer-reviewed scientific research. Science deniers may want to read elsewhere.

A new study by US scientists shows that as many of 16% of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells spill liquids every year. According to the study, there were at least 6,648 liquid releases from these wells over a ten-year period from 2005-14 in just four states — North Dakota, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

This number is much higher than in a 2015 EPA study, which found only 457 spills in eight states during the period 2006-12.

This spill near Williston released nearly three million gallons of produced water onto surrounding farmland. Photo: Chester Dawson, Wall Street Journal

This spill near Williston released nearly three million gallons of produced water onto surrounding farmland. Photo: Chester Dawson, Wall Street Journal

Study looked at entire life cycle of wells
The reason for the discrepancy, according to a BBC interview with lead author Dr. Lauren Patterson of Duke University, is that “the EPA just looked at spills from the hydraulic fracturing process itself, which is just a few days to a few weeks. We’re looking at spills at unconventional wells from the time of the drilling through production, which could be decades.”

The study, “Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities, and State Reporting Requirements,” was published in Environmental Science and Technology on February 21, 2017.

Spill pathways
Over the life cycle of a well, spills can come from many sources. The authors classified these “pathways” as follows:

  • Blowouts
  • Drilling equipment, such as rigs, shakers, and active mud systems
  • Completion equipment, including blenders, flowback equipment, chemical totes, and storage containers for chemicals
  • Tanks used to temporarily store wastewater and crude oil.
  • Pits used to temporarily store drill cuttings, wastewater, and crude oil
  • Flowlines that carry fluids from the wellhead to and between equipment such as tanks, blenders, pits, and injection wells.
  • Transportation spills that occur in the loading and unloading of materials between trucks and a tank or pit
  • Pumps used to move fluid or gas by pressure or suction
  • Heater-Treaters that use heat to break oil-water emulsions to prepare oil for transportation
  • Stuffing Boxes are devices that prevent leakage at the wellhead from valves, pistons, etc.
  • Wellhead spills occur at the point where oil is extracted from the ground due to faulty valves, blowout preventers, separators and other wellhead equipment.


The data recorded 4,453 incidents in North Dakota, much higher than Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico. Part of this is due to reporting requirements. In North Dakota, any spill larger than 42 gallons has to be reported, while in Colorado and New Mexico the requirement was 210 gallons.

As you can see from the chart at right, the largest number of spills occur in the first years of operation, with a rate as high as 15-16%. This number is reduced over time, although it settles at 7-9% over many years of operation.

Around 50% of spills were related to the storage and movement of fluids via pipelines. According to Dr. Patterson, “The causes are quite varied. Equipment failure was the greatest factor, the loading and unloading of trucks with material had a lot more human error than other places.”

Over half of spills in North Dakota occurred at wells that had recorded a previous incident.

Industry disputes the data
Industry lobbyists dispute the data, of course. “The reality is that North Dakota requires that companies report any spills that are a barrel or more, even if they never impact the environment – and the vast majority of spills have not,” said Katie Brown from Energy in Depth, a body funded by petroleum producing companies.

“According to the North Dakota Department of Health, 70% of all spills in 2013 were contained on the well pad and never reached land or water.”

Even if you accept the industry data, simple math says that 30% of the spills are not contained on the pad. That’s over 1300 spills  in North Dakota alone during the period studied.

What this means for the Beartooth Front
In a fragile ecosystem highly dependent on concentrated sources of water like the Beartooth Front, this data is highly alarming. It argues for local regulation that protects water, air, and soil required for agriculture and ranching.

That is why residents continue to work with County Commissioners on local ordinances in Carbon and Stillwater counties.

Download the complete study
View graph and chart data on spills


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What a bipartisan solution to climate change might look like

Most of us bemoan the lack of civility, negotiation, and compromise in politics. We’re so polarized that government does almost nothing to solve our most critical problems.

What’s particularly frustrating to those of us who see climate change as a major threat to the future of human civilization is that the clock is ticking. Global temperatures have risen about 1.5° Celsius since the beginning of the industrial age and are continuing to rise. Science tells us that humans are the primary cause.

The impacts will accelerate with each uptick in temperature: rising seas and coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more extreme and destructive weather, more frequent and intense heat waves, widespread forest death, costly and growing health impacts, severe drought, stress on clean water systems, disruption of food supplies, and much more.

And yet government does little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions, leaving our children to suffer the consequences.

Bipartisan solutions exist
What makes this so frustrating is that simple and elegant bipartisan solutions to this problem exist.

Just last week a group of conservative Republicans proposed such a solution. The proposers aren’t ideologues or hacks, they’re Republicans with impeccable credentials, including, among others:

  • James Baker, who served in the cabinets of Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush
  • Henry Paulsen, the Secretary of the Treasury under President George W Bush
  • George Schultz, who served in the cabinets of Presidents Nixon and Reagan
  • Martin Feldstein, the Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors
  • Gregory Mankiw, Chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors

The solution they propose is one on which many people on the left and right could find common ground if they were willing to sit down and debate it. The final outcome may not be exactly what the group proposes, but it could be the general framework for a solution to the climate change problem.

PPL Montana's Corette power plant, south of I-90 along the Yellowstone. Photo: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

PPL Montana’s Corette power plant, south of I-90 along the Yellowstone. Photo: James Woodcock, Billings Gazette

The proposal
The group proposes a “carbon dividends plan,” which has four key components:

  1. A gradually increasing carbon tax. This is a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, to be implemented at the refinery or the first point where fossil fuels enter the economy, meaning the mine, well or port. They propose that a sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.
  2. Carbon dividends for all Americans. All the proceeds from the tax would be returned to the American people on an equal and quarterly basis. A family of four would receive approximately $2,000 in carbon dividend payments in the first year. This amount would grow over time as the carbon tax rate increases, creating a positive feedback loop: the more the climate is protected, the greater the individual dividend payments to all Americans.
  3. Border carbon adjustments. Price adjustments for the carbon content of  imports and exports would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt carbon pricing of their own. Exports to countries without comparable carbon pricing systems would receive rebates for carbon taxes paid, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products.
  4. Significant regulatory rollback. The plan assumes that a rising carbon tax would change behavior, and allow for the elimination of regulations that are no longer necessary. For example, much of the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions would be phased out, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

clean-power-planWhy a carbon tax?
The price of energy from fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) is determined by market forces.  Oil prices, for example, are set by commodities traders, who bid on oil futures contracts in the commodities market. These contracts are agreements to buy or sell oil at a specific date in the future for an agreed-upon price.

Very simplistically, the primary factors that commodities traders use to develop their bids are:

  • The current supply of oil, based on OPEC quotes, and, increasingly, US shale oil production.
  • The amount of oil reserves held in refineries, in the US strategic oil reserve, or in Saudi Arabia.
  • Oil demand from markets around the world.

However, there is an additional cost of fossil fuels that is not factored into the price. It is the societal cost of releasing carbon into the atmosphere as a byproduct of fossil fuel production. This contributes to global warming, which has significant societal cost (extreme weather, drought, agricultural disruption, sea level rise, and so on).

In economic terms, this cost is called a “negative externality,” a cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction. Society suffers because of the purchase of fossil fuels.

A carbon tax is one mechanism that would price the externality of carbon emissions to make the price of fossil fuels an accurate reflection of all costs. If set correctly, a carbon tax will decrease fossil fuel usage and cause consumers to seek other sources of energy.

A tax of $40 per ton on carbon is substantial. According to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, who did an analysis of a study by the  Energy Information Administration, it is the equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of gas, and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour of coal-fired power. Such a tax would just about put coal out of business, accelerating existing market forces. It would set natural gas at just about the same price as clean energy sources such as wind and solar, but those prices are coming down. A 40 cent tax on gas would not have as significant an impact, since gas prices are volatile anyway.

Drum estimates that such a tax would enable the United States to meet it 2025 commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. The US has pledged to cut emissions between 26 and 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025.

Wind turbines at Judith Gap

Wind turbines at Judith Gap

Whether behavior would be changed enough to justify the elimination of regulations such as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s  Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards is more difficult to calculate. Drum calculates that the $40 carbon tax would be similar in impact to power plant regulation, but not sufficient to justify removal of CAFE standards.

Areas for debate
There are many areas of the Republican plan that I would debate. A carbon tax is not the only way to approach climate change, but it is a rational place to begin the debate.

  • I would push for a tax greater than $40 to accelerate the impact, or corresponding incentives to businesses for energy research and development or to consumers for the purchase of electric cars or solar energy. This would accelerate the changeover of our energy infrastructure and the increase in global termperatures.
  • A carbon tax would be a regressive tax because it would impact those who spend a greater proportion of their incomes on energy. For that reason I would suggest that the rebate program offer more to people with lower incomes to make it progressive.
  • I would argue that some regulations be saved. An example is a tax on methane leakage or oversight for oil and gas activities. I would also want the removal of regulation to be slow — after economic benefits have been clearly proven.

    Colstrip coal plant

    Colstrip coal plant

  • If you’re going to accelerate the demise of fossil fuels, you need to invest in helping individuals and communities deal with the transition. In Montana, there has been a great deal of consternation over the demise of the Colstrip coal facility. This is an inevitability as coal continues its death throes. A plan that takes jobs needs to help people find new ones — training, subsidies and so on.

But…climate denial
So here you have a proposal made by conservative Republicans that Democrats would be willing to debate and compromise on to find a solution to a critical problem.

But it can’t happen. It can’t happen because Republicans in Congress refuse to accept climate change and would never consider such a tax, reasonable as it may be.

And why do Congressional Republicans deny climate change? Well, in large part it’s because they are owned by contributions from the oil and gas industry. The US government provides huge subsidies to Big Oil, and they reciprocate by showering members of Congress with big contributions. Montana Senator Steve Daines, a climate denier, is one of the worst offenders.

Science denial is killing us, and one party is responsible for it. Bipartisan solutions that serve the interests of liberals, conservatives, and all people exist. Reasonable people could agree on them.

And liberals and environmentalists need to get on board with this solution as well, even if it did come from a group of Republicans. A coalition of Democrats and traditional conservative Republicans could tip the scale for action away from the deniers.

It’s time for all of us to take our heads out of the sand, recognize science, and get to work saving the planet.

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