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