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The Gallatin County Commission created an emergency zoning district in the Bozeman Pass area Thursday and approved a long set of rules designed to regulate coalbed methane drilling there.

"You've met formidable opposition in Gallatin County," Commission Chairman Bill Murdock warned the J.M. Huber Corp., which has leased many of the mineral rights under the 32,000-acre district and wants to drill three test wells for coalbed methane gas.

"It's not a mineral extraction state, colony, whatever, where you can come in and do what you did 100 years ago. And Gallatin County is here to tell you that," Murdock said.

On July 2, commissioners will decide whether to impose a complete, although temporary, ban on all coalbed methane wells in the 32,000-acre district.

"I'm going to advise you to keep all your legal options open," Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert told the commission, when asked if the proposed moratorium would supersede Thursday's action.

Huber has leased the mineral rights under about 18,000 acres in the Bozeman Pass area, but needs to test to determine whether CBM exists in sufficient quantity to merit further drilling.

CBM drilling can be a messy industrial process, one that involves moving large volumes of often tainted water and construction of new roads, power lines and pipelines. The concept has drawn intense, if not unanimous, opposition.

Currently, CBM drilling outside a zoning district requires only the permission of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, an entity that Lambert maintains looks out for industry first and local residents second.

Inside a zoning district, local officials can assert control. The new district becomes official after 30 days.

All three commissioners supported the emergency zoning, which will last one year and can be extended for another.

Commissioner John Vincent noted that state law gives "precious little protection" for concerns like noise, water pollution and the scarring of landscapes.

It gives "no protection whatsoever" to broader issues like the "potential for building and nurturing a viable, clean and sustainable economy."

Commissioner Jennifer Smith Mitchell urged Huber to look at the new regulations as an opportunity to do things right.

She called the extensive new rules "an opportunity to work with Gallatin County. I think it's a fair way to handle the situation."

Huber attorneys in the past have said creation of the zoning district is illegal and probably will wind up in court.

One of those attorneys, Kemp Wilson of Billings, said Thursday it is impossible to know at this point whether Huber can comply with the new regulations.

The test will come when the company applies for a conditional-use permit from the county, then sees the county's specific response.

"The devil's in the details," he said.

The new zoning district affects only one issue: CBM drilling.

The new rules, which were adjusted by Lambert and senior county planner Jennifer Madgic after a public hearing Tuesday, address a wide variety of concerns.

They include protecting water quality; conserving wildlife habitat; preventing the degradation of soil, water, air and plant life; preventing erosion; protecting air quality and views; and forcing new industries to pay "their appropriate share of the costs and impacts to public services and on public facilities."

A driller can't get a permit unless it "will not adversely affect nearby properties or their occupants," the rules say, or it must put up the money to pay for those impacts.

Drillers also would have to post bonds or other security measures to assure they comply with all rules.

Few of the people living in the affected area own the mineral rights under their property and dozens of them informally petitioned the commission to create the zoning district.

Huber lawyers testified against the district Tuesday, as did one major landowner who has leased mineral rights to Huber. A couple other people wrote letters opposing it, Mitchell noted, but the overwhelming majority of testimony was in favor of the district.

To make the zoning district permanent, residents can work from the ground up to do so and Mitchell said she hopes they will do exactly that.

Scott McMillion is at scottm@gomontana.com

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