Beartooth drilling protest continues – Billings Gazette – 12/12/13

December 12, 2013

Categories: Beartooth Front Defense Fund

Beartooth drilling protest continues

A Denver energy company will begin drilling an oil well near Belfry — and possibly use hydraulic fracking — this spring, despite protests in Billings on Wednesday by about 80 opponents.

Members of the Carbon County Resource Council and other local environmental groups held a rally in Billings and handed a petition with 4,693 signatures to Energy Corporation of America’s local office. Opponents also spoke for two hours before the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation.

The comments during the board’s regular monthly meeting were mostly symbolic because the opponents had failed to properly file a document protesting the well. The omission meant the board canceled a Thursday hearing specifically about the Belfry well. However, opponents can protest other issues, such as well spacing, when they arise, said board attorney Robert Stutz.

Deb Muth, resource council chairwoman, said, “There is nothing like the fresh, clean air of the Beartooths, the last best place. Today, we’re here to stand up and protect this greatest treasure.”

Last fall, John Mork, ECA’s founder and chief executive, said that he’d like to develop up to 50 oil wells on the east and west flanks of the Beartooths and more wells down into the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming.

ECA Rockies district manager Derrick Pottmeyer said the 50-year-old company has a clean environmental record. Before there is any talk of dozens of wells, the first well has to prove productive, he said.

“This well in Belfry, if it isn’t successful, it could be the last one,” he said.

ECA has been drilling oil wells in the Dean and Roscoe area for 30 years, but only used hydraulic fracking for the first time earlier this year on a well near Roscoe, Pottmeyer said. Fracking is the process of injecting water, sand and chemicals at extreme high pressure underground to break up shale rock and release oil and gas.

The company will wait until spring to start drilling the Belfry well, he said.

There is virtually no chance that uncontrolled growth will come to the Red Lodge area because the oil reserves are tiny, compared to the Bakken boom, Pottmeyer said.

Protesters again raised concerns about truck traffic, heavy water use, water pollution, noise pollution and spills from oil development along the Beartooth Front.

One protester painted the start of fracking along the Beartooths as a potential end to her way of life.

Bonnie Martinell, who owns Boja Farms, an organic business near Bridger, said the Clark’s Fork Valley produces everything from hay to sugar beets, barley, beef and lamb — and all depend on clean water.

“I have an orchard that produces all kinds of fruit. There isn’t another farm like it within 500 miles,” she said. “This is really going to be a tragedy if they are able to proceed and destroy a way of life.”

Larry Smith, who raises hay on a farm between Bridger and Belfry, also asked the board to protect the farm land and quality of the Clark’s Fork water that flows into the Yellowstone River.

Sidney mayor and oil and gas board member Bret Smelser pushed back against the “not in my backyard” argument.

“Is your water more precious than ours?” he asked. “We’ve been producing oil and gas since the ’50s and we still have a rich agricultural valley.”

Richland County provides half the oil pumped in Montana and half the oil revenues flow to the whole state as well, Smelser said.

The town’s population has doubled during the Bakken boom, but he said, “Sidney has not turned upside down.”

Smelser owns a business in Sidney and 180 acres north of town. He said he can see 13 oil wells from his porch, but owns no mineral rights, so he’s not profiting directly from the boom.

Oil is necessary, he said, until this country can transition to other energy sources.

“Our area is just as important to us as Red Lodge is to you,” Smelser said. “At the end of the day, I’d just like to see some common sense.”

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