In Montana, the next Arctic Refuge debate
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.