Board of Oil and Gas approves Belfry well – Billings Gazette, Feb. 27, 2014

February 27, 2014

Categories: Agriculture, Clean Water, Landowner Rights, News, Northern Plains Resource Council, Oil and gas

By Tom Lutey

The Montana Board of Oil and Gas on Thursday voted to allow a controversial horizontal oil and gas drilling operation east of Belfry.

The vote came after 90 minutes of testimony from residents concerned about potential damage from hydraulic fracturing. The well is being drilled by West Virginia-based Energy Corp. of America.

Board member Peggy James Nerud, of Circle, cast the only vote against the permit. She said the board’s majority was making the right vote based on the law, but that the environmental issues surrounding the project demanded attention.

“My opposition vote was based on the environmental impact study and the fact that I am representing Montanans at large,” Nerud said. “That is why I voted that way, to make a statement that we needed to look at the whole thing.”

ECA’s chief executive John Mork announced last fall the company planned to drill up to 50 horizontal oil and gas wells on the east and west ends of the Beartooth Front, plus more wells in the Bighorn Basin, mostly in nearby Wyoming.

With the scale of development planned by ECA, landowners encouraged the board to consider ECA’s environmental record in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, two states in which the company has been cited for violations more than a hundred times.

“Alarm bells are going off left and right with ECA’s permit application. All the while, they proclaim that they have a spotless environmental, accident-free record,” said Bonnie Martinell, a Belfry farmer and Carbon County Resource Council member. “All you have to do is go to the Pennsylvania website listing violations to find that ECA has 82 violations in the last six years alone.”

Those violations include illegal waste-water dumping, leaking waste pits, and faulty well casings for the most part, she said. “And that’s just in one state, a state that requires reporting for oil and gas company violations, which we don’t have here.”

ECA did not address the board, other than to say that it already had the horizontal well permit it needed. It told The Gazette in a written statement that its environmental record is excellent.

The state of Montana did issue ECA a permit Dec. 16, but did so after denying the public opportunity to comment about the Belfry application, known as the Hunt Creek permit.

Two groups, the Carbon County Resource Council and Northern Plains Resource Council wanted to weigh in on the Hunt Creek drilling project before the state board made its decision. And it appeared they would get their chance Dec. 12. But three days before that date, the Board of Oil and Gas took the group off the agenda saying the groups didn’t have a certificate of service, and lost their slot on the docket.

The two groups sued the state, arguing the public’s constitutional right to meaningful participation had been violated. The board reversed its earlier permit decision and scheduled the Thursday hearing and a new vote.

Members of the two resource councils wanted the board to acknowledge the environmental risks of using hydraulic fracking at the Hunt Creek site, where ground water was positioned both above and below the shale belt through which ECA intends to drill. Witnesses also asked the board to consider the road dust and soil erosion. The resource councils asked that area water be tested throughout the project’s lifespan to assure the water supply wasn’t fouled.

But the requirements were exceptional and the Hunt Creek permit application was for a basic vertical well, with the possibility of drilling horizontally if warranted. There was no mention of hydraulic fracturing, said Tom Richmond, Board of Oil and Gas administrator.

“The ECA permit proposes drilling a wildcat well, much like the other 35,000 wildcat wells drilled in Montana that have produced oil and gas over the years,” Richmond said.

“There’s nothing special with what’s proposed here that would require special conditions or stipulations.”

If hydraulic fracturing was to occur later, a different process would be used to approve it, he said.

ECA has already started work at the Hunt Creek site.

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