The Carbon County Commissioners today passed new regulations to protect citizens from the dangers of oil and gas drilling, a significant win for local activists. The Development Regulations update, the first since 1989, follows the County’s adoption of an updated Growth Policy last year.
Key provisions of the new regulations include:
- Requires an approved site plan prior to the issuance of a conditional use permit, which would be a matter of public record before a permit is granted. This is not required today.
- Provides landowners the right to receive baseline water testing, paid for by the driller before drilling begins. This is critical to determining the cause of any future contamination.
- Establishes a 750-foot minimum distance, or setback, of oil and gas development from homes, and
- Ensures dust control on roads used for hauling near drilling sites, with mitigation plans approved on a case by case basis.
The regulations mark a rare Montana victory for the tireless activists in Carbon County who have worked on landowner protections for nearly three years since Energy Corporation of America announced plans to “bring a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front. These activists, most members of the Carbon County Resource Council, an affiliate of Northern Plains Resource Council, have been relentless in pursuing change.
They attended meeting after meeting of the County Planning Board, working to adopt these regulations against opposition that gradually lost steam. They attended regular County Commissioner meetings, and testified before the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation. These regulations simply would not have happened without them.
In addition, a group of local residents organized and obtained signatures to protect their rights by establishing a citizen initiated zoning district in the Silvertip area of Belfry. When the County rejected the landowners’ application, the landowners filed suit and eventually took the case all the way to the Montana Supreme Court.
In the end, the constant pressure has paid off, and the Commissioners relented. This is a real win for Carbon County citizens. The new regulations afford genuine protections that are not provided by other Montana laws, and they would not have happened without the dedicated work of these local activists, people like Susann Beug, Deb Muth, Becky Grey, Carol Nash, Julie Holzer and Bonnie Martinell, and Maggie Zaback of Northern Plains.
The Commissioners, who began the process adamantly opposed to regulation, deserve recognition for adapting to the will of County landowners. Brent Moore, who managed the planning process, also deserves credit for being open to regulation from the beginning.
Still much more to do
But it is important to recognize that protection against oil and gas drilling is an endless battle, and these rules are a small step in a long fight. Specifically,
- The setback requirements do not provide sufficient distance to keep citizens safe. Northern Plains has recommended that setback distances be at least a quarter mile (1320 feet), and others have recommended at least 2000 feet from occupied residences. The setbacks apply only to residential dwellings, not other occupied structures such as schools, hospitals, or structures occupied by animals. Further, the regulations give the property owner the right to waive the setback distance, which encourages a cash payment in lieu of environmental safety.
- Only four water samples are required within a quarter mile of a drilling site, which does not protect all residents, and does not provide ongoing periodic testing to determine whether contamination has occurred.
- The regulations do not include many areas that are required to protect citizens: air and soil testing, control of cement casing, bonding, and so on.
This is why local activists need to keep working on local solutions to ensure broader protections, as is happening in Stillwater County, where residents continue to grapple with the County Commissioners over procedural issues related to their application with citizen initiated zoning.
But in the meantime, it is important to recognize that local activism bears fruit. It’s not easy, and requires commitment over the long haul. All credit goes to those who worked to make this happen. Local residents should thank them for their work.
As Susann Beug says, “We know that oil and gas developers will be back, and when that happens we want them to do it right.”