Front range of Rocky Mountains latest battleground over development

Montana State Roundup

Published October 1, 1994  | October 1994 issue

On one side are those that see the drilling proposal as the first of many that will ultimately despoil the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains, on the other side are those that say it's just a few natural gas wells on a relatively small piece of land. In the end, the courts may decide who is right.

The land in question is the Blackleaf Unit, more than 50,000 acres in northwestern Montana that is bordered on the west by steep rock cliffs and stream canyons, and on the east by foothills and plains. Aside from "outstanding scenic qualities," as described by the environmental impact statement, Blackleaf provides habitat for several threatened and endangered species: the grizzly bear, gray wolf, peregrine falcon and bald eagle.

But there's more than scenery and animals within that bucolic area: potentially 300 billion cubic feet of natural gas lies below the surface. If just one-third of that amount was removed, and if natural gas was priced at $1 per thousand cubic feet, the effort would be valued at $100 million. Prices are expected to hover in the $1.50 to $2 range in the near future, making Blackleaf's gas even more valuable (below $1, natural gas exploration is considered unprofitable).

There have been 17 natural gas wells on Blackleaf since the 1930s, and all but five are abandoned, according to Richard Hopkins, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area manager. Currently, the wells are non-producing because the drilling company is in bankruptcy. Recent geologic research suggests that there are vast natural gas fields in the area, and that new wells would produce well above average rates.

Although debate over the use of Blackleaf has lasted many years, in recent months it has intensified as a Billings-based company, Northland Royalty, plans to drill at least six new wells, lay underground pipeline and construct new roads.

Since the US Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the drilling activity would not harm the endangered species in the area, and since the BLM is required to promote mineral development, new drilling on Blackleaf is inevitable, says BLM's Hopkins. Because of the coming winter and with further review of Northland's application, though, Hopkins says the earliest new drilling will occur is next summer.

But the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) has other ideas. In a recent nine-page letter to politicians, and state and federal officials, MWA calls for a supplemental environmental impact statement to address issues that it says were inadequately addressed in the completed impact statement. Among those issues is the long-run economic value of protecting the area vs. short-term economic gains, proposed legislation to add acreage to Blackleaf's wilderness area that cannot be drilled, and the question of the national need for additional natural gas wells, especially in environmentally sensitive areas.

In addition to those issues, the Wilderness Association believes that the intent of the BLM and drilling companies is to open land along the entire Rocky Mountain front range for drilling, according to Mark Good of the association's Island Range Chapter in Great Falls. "Why did they pick this place?" he asks, then answers by suggesting that Blackleaf will be a test to see if the front range natural gas wells can be as productive as thought.

The Wilderness Association is now waiting for a response to its request for a supplemental environmental impact statement; at the same time the BLM continues to review the proposed new sites in consideration of Northland's drilling application. Good says the Wilderness Association's resolve on this issue is firm, and if the BLM continues to move toward new drilling in the area, "I think they're going to find themselves in a quagmire." Good says legal action is a "last straw," and that he hopes a lawsuit is avoided; but, he adds: "I think they're going to be in a lot of trouble if it comes down to filing a lawsuit."

David Fettig