Montana: Wilderness agency grapples with state over Breaks drilling

Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer

Montana - 8/15/02 - The Montana Wilderness Association is challenging a state decision that would allow eight natural gas wells to be drilled inside and adjacent to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

This marks the second time the MWA has appealed the decision since the Bureau of Land Management in May said drilling the wells wouldn't harm the environment and could begin.

The proposed wells, on leased BLM property on the east side of the monument, are in an area known as Bullwhacker Coulee in Blaine County.

The BLM state director upheld the decision to drill. But in early August the MWA appealed the decision to the Department of the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

The MWA questions the validity of the gas leases and says it is improper to proceed with the drilling because of another pending lawsuit involving gas leases in the area.

Because the BLM still is creating a resource management plan for the Breaks, the MWA also questions the decision to drill.

"Since the proclamation designating the monument establishes a clear vision of preserving and protecting the unique historical, biological and cultural resources of the area, it would be a significant impact to permit the action to proceed," the group's appeal argues.

MWA also says that of 153 gas wells that have been drilled inside the monument, only two are producing wells.

MWA member Dennis Tighe said the appeal is based on the organization's allegation that the BLM did not properly review the validity of the leases in the monument.

"Our contention is that the BLM has the obligation under its own guidelines to check to make sure that the gas wells holding the leases are capable of production and paying quantities," Tighe said. "You can't just go around drilling holes. You have to be able to produce gas in paying quantities."

Paying quantities is defined by how much gas an area can produce, how much can be sold and the cost of drilling. He said that because the gas wells have not been producing a paying quantity, the leases should have been terminated.

To protect wildlife, no drilling or construction would be allowed Dec. 1 through June 30, according to the BLM decision. Existing trails would be used to reach the site.

Drilling, which could have started in July, could still start this year, said Don Judice, field station supervisor with the BLM in Great Falls.

"We at BLM feel confident in our decision that there is a finding of no significant impact," Judice said.

Macum Energy Inc. of Billings filed for six of the applications to drill. Klabzuba Oil and Gas Inc. filed two and Ocean Energy Resources Inc. filed one.

The January 2001 monument proclamation states that existing leases will be honored, although no new oil and gas leases will be issued. The wells are expected to help the BLM as it creates a resource management plan for the Breaks.

Macum President Ralph Gailey said the decision states that the leases are acceptable. Gailey has been trying to drill for the last three years.

"I'm just absolutely disgusted with trying to do business," he said. "You can't do it anymore."

The MWA is already challenging one of Macum's other leases in District Court in Great Falls. The BLM's environmental analysis didn't include that lease.

In March 2000 the MWA filed suit, challenging seven of Macum's natural gas leases in areas in and near the Breaks and accusing the BLM of failing to properly analyze the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration.

Tighe said the challenges there differ from the most recent obstacle. But if the District Court case is decided in favor of MWA it also could impact the validity of the Bullwhacker leases, according to the appeal.

If the land board upholds the BLM's decision, the MWA can still challenge it in district court.

"We have not made any decisions on that," Tighe said.

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