Oil and gas companies are threatening to tamper the pristine ecosystem along the Rocky Mountain Front

By Nick Engelfried
Big Sky Weekly Opinion Writer

From copper mines in Butte—which made Montana the world’s biggest copper producer during the late 19th century—to coal fields in the Powder River Basin, Montana has always been a home for the extractive industries.

Mining and drilling projects wrest underground minerals from deep beneath the earth’s surface, usually for sale to points of consumption far outside of Montana.

The Treasure State has always been a supplier of others people’s needs.

Montana’s mines have fed demand in other states and countries, which either lack deposits of their own, or are unwilling to shoulder the health, safety, and environmental impacts of mining and drilling their own lands.

Now Montana may face a new wave of extraction, in the form of oil and gas drilling along the Rocky Mountain Front. Giddy from the recent oil boom in North Dakota, oil barons are eyeing central Montana. If they find black gold along the Front, Montana will have some tough choices to make about development and resource extraction.

But if the oil boom comes to the Front, it will raise serious questions about the safety of today’s drilling practices. Oil extraction from the Bakken shale has been made possible only by new technological advances, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Oil companies are already snatching up permits to explore on state and private land along the Rock Mountain Front. They are hoping to find that the Bakken shale formation, which is feeding oil development in North Dakota and eastern Montana, extends westward to the eastern flank of the Rockies. Oil speculators say they can drill more cheaply along the Front than in the plains to the east, making the area even more attractive for exploration.

Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and synthetic chemicals deep underground at high pressure, to break up shale rock and release oil and gas trapped inside. Though it’s an effective way to get at gas and oil that would otherwise be impossible to extract, fracking is an exceptionally messy process.

Chemicals used for fracking, as well as methane gas released from underground shale, can leak into nearby groundwater. Ozone emissions from fracking in Wyoming contribute to smog formation, with the result that some rural communities have poorer air quality than Los Angeles. Studies showed earlier this year ozone levels near Wyoming fracking sites were two-thirds higher than what the national Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for health.

Air pollution is only part of the story. In England, where fracking has also taken off, the practice has been linked to earthquakes and increased seismic activity. In Colorado, communities living near fracking operations report they can now light their well water on fire.

Public indignation over river fires helped spur passage of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental legislation. At the same time, Montanans, disillusioned by decades of degradation in Butte and other towns, were passing some of the strongest state-level environmental reforms in the nation.

State and federal environmental laws have served Montana well, cleaning up areas that were once toxic wastelands. However, new technologies have introduced new public health challenges. And, thanks to a loophole in the 2005 energy bill, fracking operations are exempt from federal clean water protections.

Fracking for gas and oil on the Rocky Mountain Front could bring short-term prosperity to Montana towns—just like the copper mines of Butte did in the late 1800s. But Anaconda’s once-mighty copper empire left us with the Berkley Pit. Similarly, fracking on the Front will surely have long-term consequences, which Montanans may later regret.