MT Public Radio Commentary
February 7, 2012
By Sandy Courtnage

Oil Boom in Montana?

The oil boom in North Dakota and eastern Montana seems to be moving west.  Oil and gas leasing company landmen are parked in county courthouses and offering landowners from Winnett to Augusta with possible lease agreements.

While industry experts warn that this increased interest in leasing activity will not necessarily translate into increased drilling, landowners need to be prepared to look out for their own best interest.

According to published reports, geologists have known that organic shales similar to those that make up the Bakken formation in western North Dakota extend into central and northern Montana.  However, not all organic shale formations are created equal.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the oil-saturated shales of the Bakken are concentrated in a band of rock roughly 4,500 feet to 7,500 feet below the surface, with an average thickness of 22 feet.  This is not necessarily the case as you travel west into Montana.  Some experts say that the formation is thinner or eroded.  This information, however, has not dampened many speculator’s desire to tie up potential exploration rights in many parts of central and north central Montana.

A couple of weeks ago, Montana Farmers Union held some informational meetings on what to look for in a lease if approached to sign.  Three meetings held in Ft. Benton, Lewistown and Great Falls attracted more than 400 people who were willing to travel in 18 below zero weather.  It’s clear that residents want good, reliable information on oil development, and community officials need to be aware of potential impacts should oil production take off.

The possible needs of local and county officials looking to temper impacts are daunting by some reports.

Here’s a few astounding statistics about the impacts that were reported recently during a North Dakota Sheriff’s and Deputies Association meeting held recently.   

  • There are at least 84 companies involved in the oil industry in western North Dakota with about 258 wells in progress and many more scheduled;
  • Each of these wells requires between 2,000 and 2,200 semi-loads of water and 4,000 tons of fracking sand.

As can be imagined, increased traffic, law enforcement, health care and housing are major challenges:  at one location on Highway 85 south of Williston, North Dakota, a traffic count last year revealed 29,000 vehicles passed through the intersection in a 24-hour period, and approximately 60 percent of that traffic was semi trucks.  It was also reported that waits at that same intersection to cross traffic and get onto Highway 85 can be as long as 30 minutes.

Law enforcement is reporting increased bookings by 150 percent, with bonds of $5,000 to $10,000 being paid with cash out of pocket and one $63,000 bond being paid in cash carried into the jail in a plastic Wal Mart bag.

Montana’s past has demonstrated that whatever benefits there may be from mining and drilling activity will be unevenly enjoyed.  As J. Paul Getty, founder of Getty Oil is reported to have said, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.” 

That sentiment is why it’s important that we educate and protect ourselves and future generations, and that local, county and state government officials protect the public health, safety and well being of its citizens with full knowledge that competing interests must be balanced.

For the Montana Farmers Union, I’m Sandy Courtnage.  Thanks for listening.