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Park County group prepares for possible natural gas drilling

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By Christine Rogel Contributor

SHIELDS VALLEY – The wells are inactive, but the possibility of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” for natural gas in Park County has motivated one organization to take action.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up rock, typically shale, which then releases natural gas or oil. It’s a process that’s grown since 1976, when the Department of Energy launched the Eastern Gas Shales Project, which researched “unconventional” natural gas resources, according to, an investigative nonprofit.

The practice has become controversial in recent years as some landowners report groundwater contamination near drill sites, yet industry officials maintain there’s no verifiable scientific evidence to support these claims.

Amid the debate, a newly established Gas Committee in Park County decided to educate the community and establish environmental data about its water supply.

The U.S. is undergoing a natural gas boom largely in part to hydraulic fracturing. President Obama has championed the potential of natural gas drilling with tighter regulation, saying it could create more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade, reports Bloomberg News. In addition, petroleum consulting firm Spears and Associates Inc. projects the global market for hydraulic fracturing could grow 19 percent in 2012 to a record $37 billion.

Here in the Treasure State, “about half of Montana’s gas and oil comes from wells that have been hydraulically fractured,” said Tom Richmond, administrator for the Montana Board of Oil and Gas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

The process has been used in the state since the 1950s, and sites in Phillips, Hill, Blaine and Fallon counties all use fracturing to stimulate wells.

Hydraulic fracturing has also been used in the Elm Coulee Field in Williston, N.D., since 2000. The field is part of the Bakken Shale Formation, which reaches into eastern Montana and is expected to recover 200 million barrels of oil, according to a 2009 article by the Oil and Gas Journal.

“We’ve never had any instance of contamination of ground water [in Montana] with hydraulic fracturing,” Richmond said.

But other areas of the country haven’t been so lucky.

A May 2011 study by the National Academy of Sciences found private water wells near fractured gas wells in Pennsylvania were 17 times more likely to be contaminated with methane gas. And in January 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency began supplying tanks of drinking water to residents in Dimock, Penn., after tests showed dangerous levels of arsenic, glycols and barium were present in at least four wells, ProPublica reported.

Tap water bursting into flames because of methane levels was documented on “Gasland,” a 2010 documentary on hydraulic fracturing.

Officials also declared that a string of Ohio earthquakes last year were caused by hydraulic fracturing in that state.

But supporters contest these results, saying these instances are related to the geography of those regions or other specific factors, and that more research is needed.

In Park County, the Gas Committee, spearheaded by the county’s Environmental Council and composed of five members, has formed to educate the public about the practice and establish regulations so that “when and if” hydraulic fracturing takes place, the county will understand the potential impacts, said Kerry Fee, the Park County Environmental Council executive director and founder of the Gas Committee.

“The main thing is to protect landowners and protect the state of Montana’s public natural resources―our water,” Fee said.

Since 2008, five gas wells have been drilled in Park County, two owned by Devon Energy Production Co. and three by the Bill Barrett Corp. All are now inactive, according to the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation’s database. Three have expired permits and one was abandoned. The fifth, owned by Devon, became ready for production in 2009.

The wells weren’t profitable enough, said Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon Energy.

“We did some preliminary drilling, but have since decided they didn’t offer the promise [we] had hoped, and we’ve set it aside,” Minty said. “I don’t believe we have any plans to continue development and exploration of that shale.”

The Bill Barrett Corp. could not be reached for comment, but Tom Richmond, with the Montana Board of Oil and Gas, said that the company likely isn’t interested in drilling in Park County either.

For either company to reinstate permits, a process that takes more than a month, there would need to be less natural gas on the market and it would need to be sold at a higher price, Richmond said. Currently, the cost of natural gas stands at around $2.50 per thousand cubic feet, he said.

Nationwide, domestic natural gas reserves increased by 11 percent in 2009 to the highest level since 1971 at 284 trillion cubic feet, according to a November 2010 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The low price of natural gas could be the delay the Gas Committee needs to educate the public and establish regulations over the next few years, Fee said.

The committee is in the process of acquiring grant money to pay for an extended four- or five-year water monitoring project that will test water in the Shields Valley and establish a set of baseline data so if drilling began, the group would have a before and after picture of the water supply and quality. The project is expected to cost around $300,000.

“It’s a proactive approach. Usually it’s a retroactive thing with gas drilling,” Fee said. “And we are very much hoping it turns out to be successful and other communities could use our model.”

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