The Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation does not protect citizens from the damage done by oil and gas drilling. Here’s what local communities can do about it.

A small item on the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) docket for the organization’s December 9 meeting (p.5) provides just a hint of major problems with the BOGC:

HearingBy itself, this doesn’t look like a particularly significant item. Stealth Energy USA is an apparently small company working out of Billings, doing business in Musselshell and Stillwater Counties. According to the docket item, they have failed to file required reports on a timely basis, which will cost them $160. Not much.

According to the site epa-sites.findthedata.com, the company has one prior report indicating non-compliance, but “has returned to compliance with its permit conditions, either with or without issuance of an enforcement action.”

When you click on the link for the compliance report, you get a “server not found” error message.

So Stealth Energy (perhaps appropriately named) is a company doing business in Stillwater County that has not filed BOGC-required reports, and has at least one prior compliance issue, but we can’t easily determine what it was.

Maybe not a big deal, but maybe it is. The public has a right to know.

But it does point to a much larger issue: the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation does not adequately enforce its existing laws and regulations with regard to oil and gas, and the problem has worsened as the Bakken oil boom has increased demands on that agency. If Montana residents want to protect themselves from the damage caused by oil and gas operations, they need to create their own local regulations.

The Board of Oil and Gas Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

The Montana Board of Oil and Gas. Photo: Casey Page, Billings Gazette

Oil and gas drilling damages property, water, air, soil and health
Make no mistake about it, drilling is a dirty business. And improvements in drilling technology that enabled the oil and gas booms in the Bakken and elsewhere have changed the relationship between communities and oil and gas operations. The harm done by drilling is now well documented.

The third edition of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking has just been published by two organizations: the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). The compendium is a fully referenced compilation of the evidence outlining the risks and harms of fracking, bringing together findings from the scientific and medical literature, government and industry reports, and journalistic investigation.

Click to download the compendium

Click to download the latest edition of the compendium

According to a statistical analysis of the data in the compendium done by PSE Healthy Energy:

  • 69% of the studies on water quality found potential for, or actual evidence of, water contamination
  • 88% of studies on air quality found elevated air pollutant emissions
  • 84% of studies on human health risks found signs or indication of potential harm

The Compendium’s final conclusion (p. 151):

“All together, findings to date from scientific, medical, and journalistic investigations combine to demonstrate that fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality. Emerging data from a rapidly expanding body of evidence continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems and harms that cannot be averted or cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks.

Montana regulatory agencies do not adequately monitor and enforce existing laws and regulation
There is considerable evidence that the BOGC is insufficiently staffed to monitor and enforce existing oil and gas regulation, and do not have adequate procedures in place to ensure compliance.

A performance audit of the BOGC conducted by the Montana legislature in 2011 concluded that the “Board of Oil and Gas Conservation must improve its inspections and enforcement processes to more effectively regulate the state’s 17,600 active oil and gas wells.” Key findings of the audit:

  • Division management should generally provide more formalized direction to division staff for inspection and enforcement activities.
  • For the regulatory processes, the division’s permitting and abandonment processes appear sound, while improvements are necessary for the inspections and enforcement processes.
  • Although faced with a large number of wells to inspect, audit work found the division lacks a formalized approach to their work.
  • The division should create formal inspection priorities, develop documented inspection procedures, improve inspection documentation, and consistently document field deficiencies and violations.
  • When inspectors identify a violation, the board and division collaborate with the operator to gain compliance. The division could improve its compliance rate, and lessen the number of unresolved violations, by applying existing compliance timelines and creating additional ones.
  • The division could improve management of the Oil and Gas Information System in the areas of segregation of duties, security planning, password policies, and disaster recovery planning.

But that was 2011, and the problem has gotten worse. According to “Law and Order in the Oil and Gas Fields” a 2013 report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, Montana monitoring and enforcement of state oil and gas activity has not kept up with the increase in the number of oil and gas wells in the state over time. Specific findings:

  • The number of active oil and gas wells in Montana increased by over 50% from 1999 to 2011 (p. 7)
  • During the same period, the number of field inspectors increased by one, from 6 to 7 (p.10)
  • The average state inspector does about 600 well inspections per year. At that rate, it would take about 2.5 years to inspect every active well in the state once. (p. 7, 11, 13)
  • While Montana increased the number of notices of violation from 234 to 517 from 2003 to 2011, the number of actual enforcement actions is miniscule – just $10,000 statewide in 2010 (p. 18, 21). The $160 fine to Stealth Energy is an example of toothless regulation.

What local communities can do
Montana law provides a way for local communities to take action to protect themselves. Montana counties have authority to create special zoning districts that can impose rules for extraction activities.

The process is called citizen initiated zoning, as set forth in Montana law in MCA 76-2-101. Landowners in Carbon and Stillwater counties are currently working through processes to put this kind of zoning in place. These zones would not prohibit oil and gas drilling, but make sure that it is done as safely as possible.

Here are examples of the kinds of rules that communities can put in place:

  • Setbacks that establish a minimum distance of wellheads from occupied dwellings
  • Well design requirements that require the safe handling of fracking waste and the regular testing of cement casings for integrity to prevent leakage.
  • Regular testing of water, air and soil to make sure that no contamination has occurred
  • Increased bonding to make sure that operators are financially responsible for any damage they cause

The Montana Constitution establishes a right to a “clean and healthful environment.” The BOGC does not guarantee that. It makes good sense for local citizens to demand it for themselves.

 

Related:
What’s wrong with the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation?
Time for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas to step forward on setbacks
Montana Board of Oil and Gas sued for shutting out public
Guest editorial by Bonnie Martinell: Protecting property rights in Montana: You have to do it yourself

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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