Billings Gazette opinion: Montana oil and gas drillers should give notice to neighbors – Dec. 14, 2016

Dec. 14, 2016

Montanans place a high value on their right to know what their government is doing. The Montana Board of Oil and Gas has the opportunity at its meeting today in Billings to ensure that owners of “occupied structures” receive written notice before the board permits drilling within a quarter mile of the structure.

For those of us who own homes or businesses, the proposed notification rule is a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to know that drilling is proposed 1,340 feet or less from their home or workplace? Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to ask the board for a hearing before the drilling permit is issued?

To be clear, the proposed rule wouldn’t prevent drilling. It doesn’t require a certain distance between occupied structures and wells. The proposal simply says the property owner of record would have to be notified and would have two weeks to file a request for a hearing before the board. The proposal also provides that the property owner could waive the two-week period and allow the permit to proceed immediately.

Two years of lobbying

This rule is the result of more than two years of lobbying by Montana landowners who are members of the Northern Plains Resource Council. In the 2015 Legislature, the group backed several bills calling for setback requirements and other steps intended to protect surface landowners from potential problems of being close to oil development operations. None of those bills passed.

So advocates for surface owners went to the board and urged it to start a rule-making process, which has included public hearings.

The Montana Petroleum Association has opposed the notification rule and argued that the board doesn’t have authority to make this rule. At the request of the petroleum association, Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, plans to introduce a bill that would change state law to require notice to owners of occupied structures within one-eighth of a mile (660 feet) before a drilling permit was issued.

Asked about the difference between the distance in his bill and the board’s proposed rule, Richmond, who retired two years ago as the oil and gas board’s executive director, said he had initially thought about using 500 feet. The distance of 660 feet is used in other legal requirements, he said. The greater the distance, the more potential notifications.

Richmond said he is hopeful that his bill will pass the 2017 Legislature with the support of the MPA and landowners who want notification.

Adopt the rule

Considering the lack of legislative success two years ago, the board’s rule is surest path to guaranteeing notice for folks living or working near proposed drill sites. We urge the board members to adopt today the notification rule they have formulated and revised over the past year.

The board’s proposal sets out its rationale:

“The proposed new rule would require reasonable notice of proposed drilling operations to owners of record of occupied structures. The proposed new rule also would provide a process for those owners to demand a board hearing on the application for a permit to provide a process for those owners to demand a board hearing on the application for a permit to drill. Both the notice requirement and the opportunity for a hearing are proposed in response to public inquiries about the board establishing setback requirements for wells. After consideration of public comment during several board meetings, the board proposes this notification rule, not a specific setback rule. This proposed rule would allow the board to consider establishing conditions for issuance of a drilling permit near an occupied structure.”