Published January 29, 2015
Most Montanans support responsible energy development, valuing clean air, water and land as well as the oil and gas that powers our travel and heats our homes. Where we often disagree is on the definition of “development done right.”
This week, the Senate Natural Resources Committee heard three bills that attempt to define doing development right on a level that considers the neighbors.
Senate Bill 172, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Billings, would require oil and gas developers to pay for baseline water tests of groundwater before any development activity starts at a site. The bill would also require water testing after a well is plugged.
- Senate Bill 173, sponsored by Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, would revise fees and require oil and gas developers to post surety bonds for each well drilled.
- Senate Bill 177, sponsored by Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, would prevent oil and gas drilling within 1,000 feet of a home, water well or surface water.
There’s a fourth bill also intended to protect surface landowners:
House Bill 253, sponsored by Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings. Court’s bill would require oil and gas developers to use a “closed-loop system” to reuse and recycle mud fluids in the drilling process as an alternative to creating earthen pits or ponds. The bill aims to reduce the risk of leaking waste fluids by minimizing the volume of fluids used in the process and avoiding the risk of leaking retention ponds.
A major reason why the Montana Legislature needs to look at these bills is the conflict created by split estate. More than a century ago, when the U.S. government granted lands for homesteading, it retained mineral rights under much of that land. As a result, today the government owns millions of acres of minerals under surface that’s in private ownership. The government leases its oil and gas minerals for development, and the company that does the developing has rights to access those minerals. Mineral and surface rights also may be split between private owners.
Another factor is the water table, which doesn’t end at property lines. In semi-arid Montana, water is our most precious resource.
Montanans sure don’t want unnecessary regulation. But clear rules can give a greater measure of certainty to surface and mineral owners. Instead of fearing that gas wells can be drilled in their backyard, homeowners should know that there is a setback requirement. Instead of worrying that development will contaminate their water, farmers ought to be assured of what is in the water before development starts and be able to find out what changes, if any, drilling caused. Ranchers should be able to know that reasonable precautions will be taken to prevent drilling mud from leaking onto their land. And everyone should be confident, that if a problem does occur, the driller who caused the problem will be accountable to fix it.
With the Montana Board of Oil and Gas issuing about 315 drilling permits per year, these are real concerns.
The details of landowner protection may be revised as these bills are considered. But they should be seriously considered. Montana must carefully balance the interests in valuable minerals and precious surface land.