Resident concerned about oil and gas leases – Lewistown News-Argus, July 8, 2013

July 8, 2013

Categories: Clean Water, Member news, Northern Plains Resource Council, Oil and gas


As oil and gas development booms in Western North Dakota and as oil and gas leases pop up around Central Montana, local resident Eric VanderBeek says he can’t help but feel a little concerned about Lewistown’s water quality.

Chairman of the local water advocacy group, the Madison Aquifer Alliance, and chairman of the Central Montana Resource Council, VanderBeek fears that attempts at drilling for oil and gas near or on the aquifer could potentially contaminate Lewistown’s pure tap water.

According to a document published by Northern Plains Resource Council, “oil wells can blow out if not properly cased, spraying chemicals onto the land.” The document also states “drilling companies often store the chemical-laden waste water in impoundments on the surface. These frequently leak as well.”

There are things that can go wrong, VanderBeek said, and just one risk is too many as far as he is concerned.

“Even a .01 percent risk to a 99 percent pure water source is too great a risk,” VanderBeek said. “Jobs and economic growth won’t matter if the city’s water supply is contaminated. Agriculture is the backbone of Central Montana’s economy.  What would happen to all those families if water is not available for their livelihood?”

VanderBeek said Petroshale Inc. has leases all over Fergus and Judith Basin counties. There are leases on private land, leases on public land and leases in the Madison Aquifer Recharge Zones.

Tom Richmond, division administrator and petroleum engineer for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Montana Board of Oil and Gas, said the Heath is shallower than the Bakken and does not have near the same amount of pressure support.

Although there is still a little bit of interest in the Heath, most of the Heath play is further south and east of Lewistown. Richmond said the initial production rates of the Heath have been lower than the average Bakken oil development.

“This is a result of the Bakken being about twice as deep as the Heath and generating more pressure,” Richmond said.

Northern Rosebud County is where most of the current activity in the Heath is taking place, Richmond said, and the closest place to Lewistown where there is activity is Sumatra, which is between Roundup and Forsyth.

There is no current activity he knows of interfering with the Madison Aquifer Recharge spot near Big Spring, Richmond added.

VanderBeek said this is likely the case, as several oil and gas leases have not been renewed. Wells have been drilled in close proximity to the Aquifier, he said, and all that has come up is water.

The Madison Aquifer is large, spanning Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. There are a few areas with tremendously pure water from recharge spots, such as Lewistown and the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is part of Madison Formation, which Richmond said is one of the most significant oil producers in the country.

There is much debate when it comes to oil and gas development. Hydraulic fracking – the fracturing of rock by mixing sand, chemicals and water and injecting them at high pressure to create fractures  – is often in the limelight, as concerns are rising regarding the repercussions of the process.

One argument being made is that fracking is responsible for methane in the water of some farms and ranches in Wyoming, Colorado and elsewhere. The documentary “Gasland,” which the MAA debuted in Lewistown in May of 2012, delivers this message.

VanderBeek said he is not worried about methane in Lewistown’s water necessarily, but he is worried that chemicals being injected in and around the aquifer could be damaging, be it from surface spills, leaks or improper isolation.

“This is an issue of risk assessment,” VanderBeek said, “and if there is a place where the risk is too great, it’s near the Big Spring. We are one of five places in the country with water this pure, and I don’t want to lose that. I have two daughters who depend on that water.  If we did lose it, I’d look for somewhere else to live.”

VanderBeek said he is not anti-development, but he just wants it done right, and he wants oil and gas companies to be cautious.

“Take logging for example,” VanderBeek said. “I’ve seen steep hillsides that have not grown back in 30 years from erosion, and I have seen areas where you can’t tell it has been harvested 2 to 3 times in the last 100 years.  There are areas of oil and gas development where there is little to no risk for water contamination, and areas where it is inappropriate. Logging is needed, just as energy development is.  It is a mater of where and how it is done. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.  That being said, I think drilling near an aquifer used by a living population of 6,000 people is not something you should be gambling with.”

It is also a mission of VanderBeek’s as a member of the CMRC to dedicate himself toward “sustaining the quality of water, land and food for this and future generations,” according to their mission, and one way to stay dedicated to that task is to protect the agricultural community.

“CMRC represents several farmers and ranchers who are concerned about their way of life if their water is contaminated, as MAA is concerned about the city water supply,” VanderBeek said. “Agriculture is the back bone of the Central Montana economy.”

The biggest area of concern for drilling, VanderBeek said, is the Heath formation – a geologically complex shale in Musselshell, Petroleum, Garfield and Fergus counties being evaluated for oil and natural gas – but it could happen at anytime.

“There are leases all over the place,” VanderBeek said. “There are leases right around Big Spring and there is nothing to stop them from drilling. Time is on our side.  We have the opportunity to be proactive, and the more fracking is done elsewhere, the more it is found to not be as safe as originally expected.”

VanderBeek said the Heath formation is much different than the Bakken in Western North Dakota. The Bakken, he said, is like a pool you can plunk down in whereas the Heath is more complex geologically and requires more advanced technology to access the potential oil and gas.

Nevertheless, Petroshale and other companies might keep trying, VanderBeek said, and that is why it is essential to protect our water.

“Regardless if oil or gas development is coming, we should have pragmatic protections in place” VanderBeek said. “I think we have something special here that’s worth protecting.”

As Montanans, this is our job, VanderBeek said, sharing a line from the Montana State Constitution.

“The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations,” VanderBeek recited. “Some places should just be off-limits.”

The following link is for a high quality image of the map showing oil and gas leases over the Madison Aquifer.



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