Coal, Oil & Natural Gas

The Issue:

Coal, oil, natural gas and other fossil fuel development is based on the practice and principle of externalizing costs, which is to say corporations that develop these natural resources never pay the full price for their extraction.  Environmental, social and economic costs of natural resource development are shouldered by the general public in the form of pollution, impacts to human health and degradation of land and water resources.  These costs are rarely, if ever, reflected in the actual price consumers pay for energy.

The actual development of natural resources is typically a land, water and energy intensive process. Whether development requires clearing a well pad, using water for drilling or removing a mountain, extracting fossil fuels are inherently polluting industrial practices with unavoidable impacts on land and water resources.

More broadly, every new coal, natural gas or oil project puts off America’s transition to clean energy. There exists ample science confirming the immediate need for America to be implementing strategies transitioning our economy and communities from dirty fossil fuels towards  a future of clean and renewable energy sources.

Impact on Water Resources:

Southwest and West-Central Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin is partially underlain by the Heath and Three Forks shales.  Although limited exploration and production has occurred in the Heath formation, located in the Judith Basin, there are not any significant number of coal, oil or natural gas development sites currently operating in our basin.

Conversely, the transportation of fossil fuels directly impacts the Upper Missouri River Basin: the construction of pipelines, operation of railroads – particularly those carrying coal, and like industrial infrastructure fragments landscapes and contributes cumulatively to degradation of our landscapes and waterways.

Today a pressing threat to the Upper Missouri River Basin is the proposed development of a shale play in the Beartooth Front, located directly adjacent and East of our basin.  Big corporate interests want to tap the shale there by using hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” an oil and natural gas production technique that involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, plus chemicals and sand, underground at very high pressure in order to create fractures in the underlying geology to allow natural gas to escape. The sand and chemicals are used to keep the fractures open and allow oil or gas to flow more efficiently.

Coalbed methane (CBM) production has already compromised Wyoming’s groundwater quantity. A  study by the Wyoming State Engineer found that the Fort Union aquifer has dropped as much as 625 feet since 1997 due, in large part, to extraction and disposal of groundwater used for CBM production. It will take approximately 50,000 years to replenish the aquifer. These types of water impacts are very important as groundwater is often hydrologically connected with surface water, a fact vital to understanding how Montana allows development in our arid state.

What’s the Big Deal with Fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing is one of only two underground injection processes exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and other federal environmental laws protecting water quality.  States where hydraulic fracturing occurs have varying regulatory requirements, many of which are weak.  For example while some states have recently required disclosure of what chemicals reside in fracking fluid, the respective volumes are unknown as each companies’ combination is proprietary such that a company may claim on 1% of its fracking includes toxic chemicals, while the backstory is that such 1% can actually comprise millions of gallons of chemicals. Federal law does not recognize byproduct frack-water as a toxic waste, meaning the larger pollution issue of creating, transporting and disposing of toxic wastes without sufficient oversight remains.

Watch an interesting video here of Dr. Ingraffea, a licensed engineer from Cornell Univ. who explains the nuts and bolts of fracking. The facts and science gets meaty around minute 7:45…

Watersheds also suffer from landscape fragmentation when drill rigs plot 5 acre well pads throughout shale play’s landscape, one of the unavoidable consequences of the current fracturing process.  Clearing well pads and land for infrastructure leads to less forest, riparian or native plant cover over small tributary streams and degrades wetlands, all of which contributes to impairment in terms of higher water temperatures.

Likewise, when it rains sheet flow from construction and drill sites wash sediment and contaminated substances into local waterways and wetlands.  What results are higher water temperatures, increased sediment loads and stormwater pollution, each individually and cumulatively threatening waterway and local fishery health.

Pipelines fragment forests, wetlands, and prairie landscapes. They also pose continuing risk of explosion and pollution.  Even worse, oil and gas development permanently removes at least seven billion gallons of water from the hydrologic cycle each year in just four arid western states, according to a new report, Gone for Good, published by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC).

Fracking requires the mixing of clean water with chemicals as part of the development process, permanently contaminating that water and, later, injecting over 60% of that water permanently underground. This means such industrial activity “consumptively” uses water – water used is never returned to the water cycle in significant quantities.

The Gone for Good report also found that in its case-study the four state agencies with authority over oil and gas development “continued to emphasize permitting new wells over regulation” and “have often joined the industry in an effort to downplay the impacts of oil and gas extraction.” Multiple agencies in Montana are responsible for different aspects of water law, and no single agency addresses the cumulative water use by the oil and gas industry. In fact, the agencies are promoting selling water to oil and gas companies. We need to realize that this water is ‘gone for good’ once it is used by the industry.

Because of cozy relationships between resource companies and regulators, communities and waterways are often not policed or held to high standards of care, meaning communities and waterways suffer when “accidents” occur in the development, storage, transport or use of fossil fuels. Think of the West Virginia toxic chemical spill in early 2014, the numerous well blowouts in the Dakotas, even the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The  truth is that the full scope of impacts arising from fossil fuel development far outweighs the benefits and lends credence to the need to transition Montana, and our nation, towards renewable clean energy.

Our Role:

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper watchdogs fossil fuel projects affecting the health of Montana’s Upper Missouri River Basin.  We shine a light on the true costs of fossil fuel development so that people, land, and watersheds do not unfairly bear those costs.  In some cases, that means changing the way development is approached and ensuring that laws are enforced; in other cases, it means preventing certain developments because they illegally and unjustly harm water quality, fisheries and communities.

We don’t believe that the Upper Missouri River Basin’s drinking water aquifers, water quality, fisheries and communities are adequately protected from contamination, diminution or harm by fossil fuel development, storage, transport or use.  So long as there are inadequate regulatory safeguards and no proof that fossil fuel development can be practiced safely, without risk of impairing the water resources, hurting community health and welfare or contributing to climate change, we do not support further fossil fuel development in Montana.