Learning lessons from our neighbors
Yesterday we talked about learning the lessons of history, and drew parallels between the way we dealt with smoking and public health beginning in the 1960s, and what that might teach us about the shale revolution today.
We can learn important lessons from our neighbors too. Areas in eastern Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming have had extensive drilling in their communities, and have lessons learned through hard experience.
So when a high-ranking Wyoming state official describes oil development as “devastating to the quality of life of residents who live within eye and earshot” of oil drilling rigs, we need to sit up and take notice.
Tracy D. Murphy, state epidemiologist and public health sciences section chief for the Wyoming Department of Health, made those comments in a September email to Laramie County Commissioners.
According to the Casper Star-Tribune, “Murphy’s voice is the most prominent in a growing chorus of concern over oil development in the capital region.”
The comments should resonate in Montana too. Energy Corporation of America (ECA) CEO John Mork has announced he plans to “bring a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooths, causing a great deal of concern among local land owners. The process has just begun in Carbon and Stillwater Counties.
One of the concerns land owners have about the potential expansion of oil drilling along the Beartooth Front is that it will bring heavy industry into rural areas. This means loud machinery operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a rural community, this can be devastating.
Oil boom in Laramie County
Laramie County has experienced a small boom in oil exploration this year. According to Mark Watson, Supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, oil and gas operators are finding new success drilling in the Codell formation. New wells in the Codell are producing about a 1000 barrels a day, a far cry from the Bakken, where new wells can produce 5000 barrels a day, but still notable for Wyoming.
Laramie County produced 300,000 barrels a day in May, roughly ten times the current oil production of Carbon County.
Local geologists have suggested that this might be similar to the kind of production we would see along the Beartooth Front if Energy Corporation of America is successful in realizing John Mork’s vision.
But, according to Murphy, this boom is enough to ruin the quality of life for local citizens.
“Doesn’t the county have zoning ordinances?”
“The noise and activity from oil well drilling rivals, and likely surpasses, any other industrial site in Laramie County. And of course it goes on 24/7,” Murphy wrote to the Laramie County Commissioners. “Doesn’t the county have zoning ordinances that regulate where factories can be located in Laramie County?”
The issue of zoning is an appropriate one to raise.
In Wyoming, counties have very little ability to develop zoning ordinances that regulate oil drilling. According to Laramie County Commissioner Buck Holmes, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has that responsibility. Watson confirms this. The county can regulate sanitation facilities and the weight of truck traffic, though in the case of the latter, that would be reserved only for emergency situations.
But in Montana land owners have an opportunity to work with their county commissioners to develop zoning ordinances that establish a fair balance between oil drilling and the quality of life of local residents.
The process is called citizen initiated zoning, as set forth in Montana law in MCA 76-2-101. Here’s how it works:
- Any interested group of citizens in a county can create a zone. It is a democratic process. If 60% of the residents in an area want to create the zone, it can be brought forward to the County Commission.
- The rules of the zone must be drafted to be consistent with the county growth plan.
- A zone map must be created to reflect the properties to be included in the zone and define the perimeter of the zone
- Each landowner who supports the district needs to sign a petition. The signature must match exactly the name on the title of the land.
- When more than 60% of the landowners in the district have signed the petition, it can be brought to the County Commission.
- After the County Commission receives the petitions, it holds a public meeting to determine whether the zone is in the “public interest and convenience.” If so, the district is established.
- If the zone is established it is referred to a county planning and zoning commission. This is a seven member oversight board that reviews the zoning petition and recommends how it should be implemented.
- After opportunities for public input, the planning and zoning commission puts in place the regulations for the district.
- The planning and zoning commission is responsible for the ongoing administration of the district.
Plans are currently underway to establish citizen initiated zoning in Carbon County and Stillwater County. There is a great deal of information about it on this blog, which you can find by clicking here.
Thanks to Dennis Hoyem for bringing the Casper Star-Tribune article referenced in this post to my attention.