2014 was a tumultuous year along the Beartooth Front. It began with our communities reeling from an announcement by Energy Corporation of America that the company planned to bring “a little bit of the Bakken” here, a quick drilling permit granted in Belfry with no public input and a lawsuit against the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation.
The year ended with a crash in oil prices and an uncertain future for the American oil and gas industry, a small step forward for Silvertip landowners, and a growing effort by landowners in Stillwater County to put zoning rules in place.
Along the way residents of Carbon and Stillwater counties have educated themselves, joined together, and made significant progress in assuring that if oil and gas drilling occurs along the Beartooth Front, it will be done in a way that protects the long-term viability of our community.
Writing this blog has been a tremendous learning experience for me, and I have gained some insight about local action and the oil and gas industry. The beginning of a new year is a good time for reflection on lessons learned, so I’ll offer these ten lessons for 2015, in reverse order of importance, based on my experience.
10. For all we read about the effects of oil and gas exploration — economic, political, environmental — the stories that have the most impact are personal.
Over the course of the last year I’ve told many personal stories on this blog. They get the biggest readership because people can identify with the experiences of regular people, often in rural communities, whose lives are changed forever when a drilling rig shows up in their back yard. You can read these personal stories by clicking here. (Note that there are several pages of these — click on “older posts” to page back to the older ones.)
9. There is much that can be done locally if people put their hearts and minds to it.
A year ago, the most frequent comment I heard went something like, “The oil and gas industry is too powerful, and the laws are all in their favor. We’re powerless to do anything.”
That’s just not true.
What’s true is that the oil and gas industry is very adept at coming into a community, getting people to sign agreements, and expanding rapidly before locals can get organized. They have been incredibly successful with this strategy in eastern Montana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Utah and other states.
But in 2014 we saw the power of local activism on display in New York, which has now banned high volume hydraulic fracturing; in Denton, Texas, where a public health nurse led a ballot initiative to stop fracking; and in Vernal, Utah, where a midwife shined a light on a large number of stillbirths in a town where drilling has been the norm for 50 years.
Along the Beartooth Front, 2014 was a very successful year for local action. The Silvertip Zone is a great example of the power of dedicated activism. Before that zone was put in place, local vigilance kept oil and gas drillers from taking water without a right. Local input helped to prevent the lease of BLM land in Dean last May. And the Northern Plains/ Carbon County Resource Council lawsuit forced the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to grant a public hearing on the Belfry well.
In the future, more is possible. In 2015, Stillwater residents will be bringing a larger zone to the County Commissioners, and local residents are looking at working with the water conservation board to enact a county-wide ordinance to set standards for water use in oil and gas drilling.
Local action is not only possible, it can be very effective. And it’s happening along the Beartooth Front. Just watch this video put together by local citizens, who raised over $8,000 for the effort:
8. When people know the facts, they support local efforts to regulate oil and gas exploration. Effective communication is critical to successful management of oil and gas activity in a community.
In 2014 there have been two substantial local efforts to establish citizen initiated zoning along the Beartooth Front. In Carbon County, a small group of landowners has petitioned to form a citizen-initiated zone, the Silvertip Zone, in Belfry. Because of their great persistence they achieved a first approval in December to go forward from the County Commissioners. In Stillwater County, the Stillwater Protective Association has launched a more expansive effort to establish a zone in the Nye-Dean area, and expect to bring a petition signed by several hundred landowners to the County Commissioners in early 2015.
What has been remarkable about both these efforts is how few people, when presented with the facts, are opposed to plans to regulate drilling. Montanans don’t necessarily love regulation, they certainly don’t love zoning, and they don’t love signing their name to public documents, but when they understand that this is a viable path to protect their rights, their water, and their way of life, they are supportive.
The clear lesson here is the need to communicate, communicate, communicate locally. There is a great deal of FUD — fear, uncertainty and doubt — about oil and gas drilling. But when people are presented with factual information, they are responsive.
7. The management of oil and gas drilling iis not a blue – red issue. We should focus on the long-term health of our communities.
The media loves a narrative that portrays oil and gas drilling along the lines of traditional American political divisions. If you want to regulate oil and gas drilling, the narrative goes, you’re an environmental whacko who hates jobs and economic growth. If you’re for expanding mineral extraction you’re a climate change denier who doesn’t care if your daughter gets cancer.
If we allow that narrative to predominate, we all lose. The real discussion we need to be having in American communities should center on how we can foster economic growth in a way that protects the long-term sustainability of the way of life in a community.
That’s the purpose of the citizen-initiated zoning efforts taking place in Carbon and Stillwater counties. I encourage local citizens to join those discussions. Responsible oil and gas drilling is something environmental whackos and climate change deniers should both support.
6. Scientific research now offers compelling evidence that oil and gas drilling is dangerous to human and animal health. It’s time for elected officials to take their heads out of the sand and pay attention.
The oil and gas boom began just a few years ago and expanded like wildfire. Fracking and horizontal drilling technology brought wells close to where people live like never before.
Scientific research is taking time to catch up, but it is getting there. Every week new studies are being released that show that people who live close to wells have more adverse health impacts than those who don’t. Babies who are born near wells have more health issues than those who aren’t.
The oil and gas industry argues that there’s no smoking gun, and they’re right in a very limited way. We can’t yet prove why these things happen, we just know that they do.
The state of New York chose to invoke the “precautionary principle” and ban fracking. That’s not likely to happen in Montana, but our elected officials need to recognize that they can’t play Russian roulette with the citizens they represent.
Oil and gas drilling needs to be be regulated to protect us from permanent damage to public health.
5. It is not fair for local communities to pay for the mess the oil and gas industry creates. Infrastructure maintenance is a cost of doing business and should be paid for by industry, not local citizens.
Over the course of 2014 I have written often about the impact of oil and gas drilling on infrastructure. As drilling expands in an area, roads are chewed up, the costs of sewage and garbage collection increase, police and court costs rise dramatically, schools need to expand and more healthcare services are required.
In Montana we have an oil and gas tax holiday that grants drillers of horizontal wells an 18 month grace period in which they do not pay an oil tax. We’ve seen how that plays out in towns like Sidney, where the shortfall for increased costs is huge.
The Montana legislature should remedy this, but until they do, efforts like the Silvertip Zone are necessary to make sure local residents don’t get stuck paying for costs that the oil industry ought to be responsible for.
4. Under current law, oil and gas drilling is fundamentally unfair in its impacts. Local communities need to enact rules to make sure the rights of landowners are protected.
In Montana, as in many states, each property is divided into two parts: the surface estate and the mineral estate. Some properties are fee simple, or unified, meaning the surface owner is also the mineral owner. But others have split estates — the surface owner is not the mineral rights holder.
Montana law favors the mineral rights holder. The split surface owner has little ability to keep the mineral owner from extracting minerals, and receives little compensation for providing access. If drilling results in water contamination, excessive air pollution or infertile soil, there is little to be done.
What’s more, research shows that, for surface owners, drilling reduces property value, and makes it more difficult to get mortgages and compensation for damages that occur during drilling.
A fundamental reason for forming zones in Carbon and Stillwater counties is to restore fairness to the equation. Surface owners should not have to pay for water, air and soil testing and remediation. They should be protected from the 24 x 7 light and noise impact that drilling brings. They should not pay for the increased infrastructure burden caused by drilling that does not benefit them.
We need to do what is fair for everyone, not just the lucky few who hold mineral rights.
3. We can’t pretend we’re not concerned about the long-term viability of our planet. We need to feel urgency to change our energy ways.
If you’ve gotten this far, you won’t be shocked by this statement: Science tells us that our planet is warming, and that human activities are a contributing factor. Our dependence on fossil fuels is one huge reason, and we need to move as quickly as possible to shift to alternative fuels.
We can no longer afford to engage in the pointless debate politicians like Steve Daines, a proud climate change denier, want us to. It is convenient for those who receive huge contributions from the oil and gas industry to pretend that they just don’t know whether humans are causing this, so we can’t do anything that might impact job growth (click to read letter at right). That’s irresponsible.
In the short-term we need to stop engaging in activities such as flaring, which introduces massive amounts of methane into our atmosphere. In the long-term we need to embrace non-carbon fuels that reduce our carbon footprint.
2. Water is our most precious resource. Preserving it should be our primary goal.
As our planet warms and our need for water expands, drought is a perennial condition for much of the West. In areas where there is no municipal water system, each resident depends on the health of an aquifer and a well for their crops, livestock and personal use.
Fracking and horizontal drilling are threats to water for two reasons:
- A single well can require a large water supply, potentially several million gallons. In areas impacted by drought, this means that the source of water becomes a critical issue, and states can face choices between fracking and other essential uses.
- If an aquifer or well becomes contaminated, a landowner’s livelihood can be ruined.
In Montana, there are few regulations governing water testing and use. The oil and gas industry would love to have you believe that there is no relationship between fracking and water contamination, but it’s just not true.
Any local community faced with an expansion of oil and gas drilling should put regulations in place to protect water from contamination. Rules requiring water testing paid for by oil and gas operators, remediation of contamination, and water usage should be at the top of the list.
Water protection is a key element of zoning petitions in Carbon and Stillwater counties.
1. The fight for the long-term sustainability of our communities against unregulated oil and gas drilling never ends. We need to be constantly vigilant.
We should take pride in what we have accomplished so far, and will accomplish in 2015.
But in Montana, as in most states, protecting communities from unregulated oil and gas drilling has many facets. In addition to the kind of action we’re seeing at the local level, we need to be active on many fronts:
The Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), which has primary responsibility for permitting wells, is in need of substantial reform. As currently constituted, the BOGC’s mission is to encourage the development of wells for profit.
- The Montana Supreme Court, which should be an apolitical steward of the environment, is an elective body, and, as we saw in the most recent election, outside corporate interests, including energy companies, have poured money into Montana to try to elect anti-environmental ideolgoues. We need to stay vigilant to protect the neutrality of this important body.
- The Legislature can enact laws that overturn existing rights to act locally. To the extent that our local efforts to establish citizen initiated zones are successful, it is possible to imagine the Legislature overturning that right. We need to make sure that our legislators understand the importance of these rights.
- The Governor, who appoints members to the BOGC, needs to understand the importance of reform, and of upholding local rights to protect our communities.
We can never win protection from the oil and gas industry. We can win battles, but the oil and gas industry is relentless. Protecting our land, our rights, and our way of life is an endless struggle.
Keep at it. It’s a righteous fight. Here’s to a great 2015.