Shields Valley Threatened by Fracking

Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Chronicle

Shields Valley, just north of Wilsall, Mont. is covered by rain clouds on Tuesday, July 3. Shields Valley is expecting a large influx of oil companies to move in as the state begins auctioning mineral rights in the area, where the oil companies can begin exploring for oil, gas or coal in processes such as fracking.

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Just as Montanans living on the east side of the Beartooth Mountains sue to recover their right to comment on nearby oil development, people living east of the Bridger Range could face similar hurdles in the future.

On Wednesday in Yellowstone County District Court, the Carbon County Resource Council and the Northern Plains Resource Council sued the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation after residents and organizations were not allowed to comment during a public meeting on an exploratory well permit.

After the resource councils filed a protest on Oct. 25, the oil and gas board scheduled a Dec. 10 meeting in Billings to hear comment on the approval of a permit to allow “wildcat” oil drilling in the Belfry area east of Red Lodge.

Denver-based Energy Corporation of America applied for the permit to explore the potential for fracking development along the Beartooth Front.

MBOGC rules require that specific documents accompany an administrative protest, which the resource councils submitted through fax and hand delivery.

However, Carbon County Resource Council chair Deborah Muth received a phone message on Dec. 9 informing her that the groups had neglected to include a certificate of service and that the meeting was canceled.

The board approved the permit on Dec. 12 with no comment.

The lawsuit asks the judge to void the decision that granted the permit. It also asks the judge to declare the Board of Oil and Gas rules regarding public involvement unconstitutional based upon the right to participate in state agency operations and Montana’s open meeting laws.

The lawsuit claims that because many farmers in the area could lose their livelihoods in the event of an accident, they should have the right to due process.

Some oil exploration is proceeding in the area on private property, the McKay Ranch, northwest of Red Lodge near Dean.

The Belfry permit is also on private property, but it’s a split estate, which means the residents own the property but the state owns the mineral rights.

ECA is leasing the permit to the mineral rights without the approval of the landowner, which is legal.

That’s the situation that some Shield’s Valley residents may find themselves in if that area ever becomes more popular with developers.

Less than two miles away from the proposed Belfry well, a former Bozeman resident is worried about what could happen to her farm if fracking takes off in the area.

Bonnie Martinell moved to the Beartooth Front to raise organic fruits and vegetables. She said no similar fruit farm exists for 500 miles because only three parts of the state have the right climate conditions.

Martinell didn’t learn about the exploratory well until November. Now she and other area farmers are worried about the future of their property and livelihood.

“We get only 2 inches of rain a year, so we rely on irrigation and well water. It’s scary when you look at how much water is used by fracking wells and the potential for having our groundwater ruined,” Martinell said. “This is a huge farming community and most are against this. We’d at least like to have some baseline water testing.”

Board of Oil and Gas administrators could not comment until the lawsuit had been reviewed.

The judge could rule as early as next week or it could take months, Martinelli said.

“They have 45 days to find something, but they haven’t done anything yet. It would be nice if the judge ruled in time to stop them,” Martinelli said.

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