On the Front lines of controversy - Some say there's room for middle ground in drilling debate

By JENNIFER McKEE of the Missoulian State Bureau

July 20, 2003


HELENA - Were the mountains not so stunning and their cache of biodiversity not so prized, the controversy over Montana's Rocky Mountain Front might be another latter-day Western cliche.

We all know the story: Industrialists want to build roads, drill wells and make money in a chunk of beautiful country. Environmentalists want to stop them, to leave the mountains to solitude and quiet. In between, are the middle voices: Why not drill a few wells? You can't eat scenery, and Montana's economy is in the toilet.

But the Rocky Mountain Front isn't just any other place, said Gloria Flora, the former Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor who closed the area to new oil and gas wells in 1997.

The Front is among the top 1 percent of uncut, raw wild mountains in the United States, she said. And they should not be drilled, dug and discarded like so much of Montana's - and the world's - wild places.

"This place is so special we should just leave it alone," said Flora, who now runs Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, a Helena-based group formed in two years ago to push for changes in public lands management.

The Bureau of Land Management, together with the U.S. Forest Service, is preparing to launch an environmental study for natural gas wells for several locations along the Front. Don Judice, supervisor of BLM's gas and oil field station in Great Falls, said three energy companies - including Startech Energy Corp. of Calgary, Alberta - hold leases to drill in the area. All the leases date back to before 1997, when Flora declared the area off-limits to new oil and gas exploration. She said her decision did nothing to affect pre-existing leases.

Right now, Judice said, the agencies are looking at eight wells, with the possibility of drilling up to six more. But wells alone don't bring gas to market, and Judice said the agencies also are envisioning a gas "sweetening plant," where sulfur would be removed from the gas, as well as a pipeline.

The study was announced this spring and reignited a controversy brewing for decades over industrial development of the Front.

The seeds of the area's great beauty and hydrocarbon promise go back roughly 60 million years. Two stacks of rock, layered like plates, smashed and folded atop each other. On the surface, that geologic wreck left vast limestone walls pushing straight out of the plains, stretching for miles. Everything from Condon nearly to Choteau and Canada south nearly to Helena is a mass of rocky, wild mountains - a place of legendary scenery and robust wildlife.

But something spectacular happened underground, too. Trapped between the rocky folds are pockets of natural gas. Exactly how much isn't known. One early industry estimate pegged the stores at 3.6 trillion cubic feet. Judice said one Forest Service estimate put it closer to 280 billion cubic feet of gas that drillers might actually be able to extract.

"We are refining that number," he said. "We don't have a number right now."

In Canada, such pockets have spawned productive gas fields and Gail Abercrombie, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, believes Montana should tap its stores, too.

Abercrombie said opponents of drilling have overplayed the Front's more photogenic locales, wrongly suggesting that oil and gas drilling will scar famed places like the China Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

"I get a little irritated," she said. "They say, 'Don't harm this pristine area' and show pictures of the Bob Marshall. A lot of the places (to be drilled) are on the plains."

Abercrombie said the footprint of natural gas drillers will be small - a road, a small, flattened patch of ground and pipe sticking out of the earth.

"About as high as your knee or your hip," she said.

Flora tells another story.

She has an album of photographs of Canada's Front country to show how natural gas has changed the mountains there: mountain roads so clogged with company trucks and tractors they are closed to regular traffic at certain times. Roads and pipelines snaking up the most impossibly steep cliff sides. And the granddaddy: a picture of a "sweetening plant," tucked into the hills, complete with smokestacks and great yellow cakes of sulfur removed from the gas.

"So much of the wildlife there has disappeared," she said.

Abercrombie counters that the sweetening plant needed for Montana's development would be much smaller and newer.

"It wouldn't have to be that big," she said.

Judice said the agencies are looking at a sweetening plant that would take up anywhere from three to 10 acres.

Flora agrees that gas development in Montana would not be as extensive as that in Canada. But she thinks any development of the Front is too much. No amount of gas or profits is worth changing the Front, which has remarkably survived 200 years of urbanization and development starting with Lewis and Clark and remained almost completely unchanged.

"It's like asking which of your friends do you love the most or who do you love more? Your children or your wife and by how much and how much is it worth to you? Give me a dollar figure," she said.

People love the Rocky Mountain Front. They love it exactly like it is, she said.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., seems to agree. He's tacked an amendment onto the Senate energy bill that would allow leaseholders in the Front to exchange their leases for government leases elsewhere, like eastern Montana or the Gulf of Mexico.

"He believes strongly that the Front is too important to too many people to drill for gas and oil," said Barrett Kaiser, a Baucus spokesman.

But Abercrombie said that plan doesn't wash.

"It brings no economic benefit to Montana. It leaves a resource in the ground unexplored and it benefits those holding (Rocky Mountain Front) leases over others leasing in the Gulf of Mexico," she said. "We opposed it last year. We oppose it this year. We'll always oppose it."

Flora questions how many jobs drilling on the Front would bring to Montana. Natural gas wells don't demand a big work force. Most of the work, she said, lies in the temporary tasks of drilling and preparing the site.

"Building a road once. That's sustainable jobs in Montana?" she said.

Right now, nothing is happening and the Forest Service hasn't yet started preparing the actual study. Even still, Judice said, the issue has already fanned a lot of interest.


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