All about the money
It should come as no surprise that there was big oil money behind the new Texas law that stops local government from regulating oil and gas. What might shock you is that the same money is about to be used for the same purpose in Montana.
We’ve written about HB40, the Texas “ban on bans” bill, on several occasions. It was passed in response to a local fracking ban enacted last November in the town of Denton, Texas. The oil and gas industry is so excited about HB40’s passage that they have made it the cornerstone of a national game plan to strip local landowners of their right to regulate what happens on their own properties.
On its surface, Texas doesn’t seem like a natural place for this kind of bill because it runs contrary to the state’s fierce libertarian culture. The Lone Star State, like Montana, is a state that historically treasures personal freedom and local rights.
So how did a bill like this get passed? You know the answer: it’s money, of course.
According to Texans for Public Justice, the energy and natural resources industry was by far the largest funder in Texas in the 2014 election cycle, contributing over 16% of all funds raised. Oil and gas interests gave 31 Texas Senators a total of $1.7 million in the 2014 cycle, an average of more than $56,000 each. They gave $3.8 million to 144 Texas House members, more than $25,000 each.
Introducing the Wilks brothers
A very large portion of this money came from Dan and Farris Wilks. The two brothers are self-made oil and gas billionaires who founded Frac Tech in 2002 and sold their 70% interest for $3.5 billion in May 2011. They continue to be players in the fracking industry, managing Interstate Explorations, an oil and gas field services company.
According to RH Reality Check, the brothers ponied up more than $800,000 in Texas campaign contributions in 2014, making them the largest single contributors from this sector. Of the contributions made directly to Texas legislators, the brothers and their wives accounted for over $300,000.
Every single legislator who received money from the Wilkses in 2014 voted for HB40. And Gov. Abbott, who signed it into law, received another $30,000. As Texans for Public Justice puts it, they’re “doing their masters’ bidding.”
The largest private landholders in Montana
So how does this relate to Montana? Well get this — according to Montana Cadastral figures, Dan and Farris Wilks own 341,845 acres in Montana, making them the largest private landowners in the state.
The Wilkses started buying land in Montana in 2011 with their purchase of Tom Siebel’s N Bar Ranch in Fergus County, and have been expanding their Montana holdings ever since, fanning out from their first purchase of the N Bar onto adjoining property in Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley Counties. They’re practically our neighbors in Stillwater County.
Turns out the brothers are also big supporters of Steve Daines, who recently co-sponsored S. 828, which specifies that “states (have) the sole authority to promulgate or enforce any regulation, guidance, or permit requirement regarding hydraulic fracturing on or under any land within their boundaries.” This includes federal lands. The bill was a direct response to new BLM rules requiring oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use to conduct hydraulic fracturing operations on federal lands, as well as regulating the storage of wastewater.
“States like Montana have successfully overseen hydraulic fracturing for years, but once again, the Obama administration seems more set on overregulating our energy industry than promoting the responsible development of our nation’s vast energy resources,” Daines wrote on his Facebook page.
Farris Wilks and his wife JoAnn contributed $25,000 to Daines’ election campaign last year. And the reason the Wilkses are so eager to get state control over BLM land is that they’ve been fighting with hunters and the BLM over their property ever since they purchased it.
According to the Billings Gazette, hunters in the Lewistown area rose up to successfully beat down a proposal by the Wilkses to exchange a ranch they purchased that would provide access to public land north of the Missouri River Breaks for 4,800 acres of BLM land within their central Montana holdings. The majority of that BLM land is a contiguous block known as the Durfee Hills. Some hunters have flown into the landlocked hills to hunt elk that spill over from the Wilkses’ N Bar.
“There was a lot of public outrage,” said Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte of Billings.
Coming for your property rights
But that’s a small piece of what’s coming. Interstate Explorations, the Wilkses’ oil company, is increasing its activity in Montana. It is now the 60th largest producer in the state (see chart on Page 6).
Now let’s put two and two and two together:
- The Wilkses have made billions in fracking.
- They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lavishing contributions on Texas politicians to thwart local regulation of oil and gas in the Lone Star State.
- They’re now the largest private landowners in Montana
- Their company is active in oil drilling in Montana
- They’ve buddied up to Steve Daines and have made contributions that have furthered their interest in protecting their private land holdings.
- The oil industry has a national strategy of outlawing local regulation in individual states.
Will you be surprised when the Wilkses fund a 2017 legislative effort in Helena to strip local communities of their right to regulate what happens on their own land?
You shouldn’t be. They’re already hard at work getting it done. In 2012, just after they started to purchase Montana land, the Wilks brothers and their wives were the largest individual contributors to Montana state legislators. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, they contributed a collective total of $51,040. Each of them gave to more than 70 candidates, all Republicans, and in most instances, they each gave the maximum allowed by law.
Time to wake up folks. They’ve bought and paid to have your rights taken away by the Montana Legislature, just like they did in Texas.