CHOTEAU, MONT. — In autumn, the dry grasslands of Montana paint the foothills of the Rocky Mountains a pale yellow, and grizzly bears follow the creeks downhill to gorge on serviceberries or chokecherries in wetland thickets burnt red by frost. As the weather grows cold, the bears will be joined by herds of elk and deer or by lone predators like lynx and wolverine.
Modern conservationists call this wild country "the American Serengeti." But unlike the African Serengeti, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, a 100-mile stretch of glacier-sculpted peaks and valleys held by the US Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has only temporary protection against oil and gas drilling.
That could change. In a debate starkly reminiscent of the battle over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the Montana Front lands are the latest to join America's heated debate over energy production and wildlife. At issue: would an initial development of 11 wells, producing a moderate amount of natural gas, leave a footprint acceptably small to justify drilling in one of the world's most striking and largely unspoiled landscapes?
The Bush administration has targeted the Rocky Mountain Front, along with the ANWR, for oil and gas exploration. Last fall, the BLM issued new policies aimed at reducing barriers to oil and gas leasing on its lands and launched an environmental impact study along the Front, to be completed by year's end. Energy firms want to extract gas through existing and new leases on BLM and US Forest lands. If approved, drilling could begin by 2005.
In addition, the US Forest Service will reconsider a drilling moratorium it issued six years ago on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, a portion of the Front, when it expires in 2006.
The Front is part of what geologists call the Thrust Belt, where oceanic plates collided, sending vast ribs of rock upward to form the Rocky Mountains. Geologists believe natural gas is trapped in pockets between those plates.
Estimates of natural-gas reserves range as high as 2.2 trillion cubic feet, enough to supply the US for two months. Much of it is off limits, lying beneath Glacier National Park, the Scapegoat Wilderness Area, or the Lewis and Clark reserve.Estimates of natural gas reserves under BLM lands open to possible drilling exceed 200 billion cubic feet - more than enough to generate excitement among energy firms.
While an Alaska Conservation Alliance poll shows more than 60 percent of Alaskans support drilling in the ANWR for economic reasons (as do the state's prominent politicians), Montanans are divided over drilling in the Front. In Montana, more than half of residents would like to see the Front permanently protected, the Montana Conservation Voters reported. "You can say that the Front is the ANWR of the lower 48, but there is one major difference: In Alaska, a majority of the citizens support drilling in the refuge," says a spokesman for Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana.
Montana's two US senators (one a Republican, the other a Democrat) take opposing views. The state's lone congressman, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), supports drilling.
If the BLM opts to lease drilling rights, three inactive gas wells in the central northern Front could be brought back into production, says Don Judice, who handles oil and gas permits along the Front for the BLM. "The proposal is to drill eight more, from four more locations."
To find and extract the Montana reserves, drillers will need to build roads and platforms for equipment. If deposits are there, they may contain high levels of hydrogen sulphide, or "sour gas," which will require treatment by a "sweetening plant" that must be built nearby. There is debate over whether the air emissions are harmful. Industry officials say the environmental "footprint" can be kept to an acceptable minimum.Nearly every US conservation group disputes this claim.
Energy companies "know that if they can drill there ... there will be no place, anywhere, that is off limits," says Gloria Flora, former supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, which, along with the BLM, manages most public lands in the area. In 1997, Ms. Flora placed the moratorium on oil and gas exploration on the Lewis and Clark reserve. It includes the Badger/Two Medicine area at the southern edge of Glacier Park, which has been a conflict zone between energy developers and environmentalists for more than 30 years.
"A lot of Montanans don't want to see the Front developed," Senator Baucus saidin an address before the Senate last July. "The habitat is just too rich, the landscapes too important to subject it to the roads, drills, pipelines ... chemicals, noise, and human activity." Baucus recently introduced an attachment to the energy bill that would have extended the Lewis and Clark moratorium, but it didn't survive.
But for Montana's Republican congressman, the issue is not as clear cut. Representative Rehberg has expressed support for exploration, telling reporters in spring 2002, "Everything should be under consideration. Shouldn't we at least have an opportunity to do an inventory?"
Conrad Burns, the state's Republican senator, is also open to drilling. "Over the past decade we've learned that true energy security comes from diversity in its sources," he said last week in a prepared statement. "I feel that for the sake of our homeland security, we owe it to ourselves to at least know the extent of the energy supply held [in the Rocky Mountain Front]."
Energy groups feel strongly about tapping into the reserves.
"We think it is one of the most important reserves in the country ... and it makes no sense to set it aside when we are facing natural-gas shortages," says Claire Moseley of Public Lands Advocacy, a nonprofit energy group that advocates development of federally owned land.
Montana residents, however, aren't entirely convinced. In the farming town of Choteau, population 1,781, the issue is divisive.
Teton County Commissioner Mary Sexton says the number of people who oppose drilling has increased from 20 years ago, when some wells were extracting natural gas from BLM lands within 10 miles of the Blackleaf Canyon Wildlife Management Area on the Front.
"But it is still extremely contentious," says Ms. Sexton, who is "keeping an open mind." Her grandfather homesteaded on the south fork of the Teton River.
Sexton recalls that during drilling in the mid-1980s "the company cut a big swath right through the Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area, and what they did was ... completely inappropriate. The drilling certainly didn't produce a boom here - it was more like a blip," she adds. "Agriculture is the main thing here."
The Blackleaf Wildlife Management Area was where, in May, biologists collared an 850-pound grizzly bear, the largest ever recorded south of Canada.
On the Canadian Rocky Mountain Front, in the same geological formations, is the Pincher Creek Gas Field, which has produced up to 150 million cubic feet of gas per day. In August 1997, Bob Schalla, a geologist, told a reporter for The Washington Post, "Everything they have in Alberta that gives them these huge gas fields is in Montana."
Shell Oil Co. built a massive sweetening plant in the Pincher Creek area in 1957, and another between Pincher Creek and Waterton National Park in the '60s.
"Up until the last 10 years Shell contributed about half of all our [town's] total revenue, and our annual budget is $8 million. Now, their contribution is down to about 25 percent.... But they are still the largest single employer," says Matt Bonertz, director of finance for Pincher Creek Municipal District. He says Shell has been "a good corporate citizen." However, there's been plenty of controversy, he says, especially over the dangers of sour gas. Shell recently announced plans to expand oil and gasexploration east of Pincher Creek.
Ironically, Pincher Creek represents much of what some Montanans fear the most. "All you have to do is drive up there to Canada to see what could happen to us," says Stony Burke, a lawyer who lives in Choteau.
Pincher Creek inspired Flora's decision to place a moratorium on exploration in the Lewis and Clark reserve. "The Canadians have mined one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, destroyed their wildlife, taken it from the future ... and they show no sign of stopping," she says.