Rocky Mountain Front residents brace for the Bakken's slow spread 

There was hardly room to breathe in the conference room at Choteau's Stage Stop Inn March 1. Locals spilled into the hallway or sat shoulder to shoulder in the hotel's lobby. A sign taped in the breezeway announced that the public meeting was at full capacity. Roughly 250 people showed up from Dupuyer, Augusta, Great Falls—all drawn by the latest buzz words creeping west from the North Dakota state line: Oil. Gas. Fracking. Boom.

Teton County called the meeting in response to uncertainty surrounding the spread of the Bakken oil play. Already companies have contacted local landowners to inquire about mineral and access rights on farms, ranches and sprawling private spreads. The calls are enough to spark rumors and generate confusion as to who owns what below the surface.

Sentiments are mixed as to how welcome a glut of oil and gas development would be. But state and federal officials were quick last week to assure locals that even if exploration ramps up in their backyards, there's no guarantee oil and gas companies will be "smoking cigars and sipping cognac" over what they find. "It's a science project," said Don Judice, petroleum manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "In our part of the state, we haven't discovered anything."

The fears reflected in questions ranged from water contamination to sprawling mobile "man camps" to escalating prices on goods and services for local residents. Judice attempted to allay concerns over fracking by pointing out that any such activity along the Front would occur at a depth of 4,000 feet—far deeper than at Pavilion, Wyo., where the EPA is currently investigating claims of fracking pollutants in well water. Such chemicals aren't that uncommon, Judice said. One is even used to prevent McDonald's milkshakes from melting, he added. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "I'm not here to advocate this. But there's been a lot of talk of secrecy about this...and I'm here to say most of these chemicals are nothing you don't have under your kitchen sink."

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  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • In Choteau on March 1, Patrick Montalban explains the penalties Montana landowners could face if they impede some forms of oil and gas exploration.

"Yeah, but you don't drink those, either," an audience member said.

One of the key concerns in Choteau is far removed from the public safety and environmental fears voiced March 1. Teton County Clerk and Recorder Paula Jaconetty says inquiries regarding subsurface mineral ownership are four times what they were just over a year ago. Some of those come from farmers and ranchers; others come from land men investigating mineral prospects for scores of oil and gas companies. Jaconetty estimates about 10 land men are currently compiling data from her office on a daily basis. More are coming all the time.

"We just had a call from another oil company that wanted to know...what we do," Jaconetty says. "They're sending three to five people next week. We got two new ones today [March 5] from Texas. Yeah, we're pretty busy."

Sussing out who owns the riches below the Front isn't easy. Land may have changed hands over the years, but owners somewhere down the line could have reserved part or all of their mineral claims. Farmers, ranchers and land men may at times "have to start with day one, at the homestead," Jaconetty says. "These people were really smart back in the early 1900s" when it came to holding on to potentially valuable assets. And with the limited development that the Front has seen over the past century, there wasn't necessarily any pressure to clearly delineate mineral ownership. Until now.

The question of mineral rights is even further complicated by the possible presence of split estates. Surface owners may not hold claim to the resources beneath their land, or they may share mineral ownership with multiple parties. Subsurface minerals might even be under the ownership of the state.

During the four-hour meeting March 1, Patrick Montalban, president of Mountainview Energy and a member of the Northern Montana Oil and Gas Association, told locals that their ownership rights over minerals are strongly protected by state statute—even if they aren't the sole owner.

According to the Montana Environmental Quality Council, which compiled a pamphlet outlining split estate laws in 2007, "courts have held that the mineral right has no value unless the oil or gas can be removed from the ground." This means mineral owners are granted reasonable surface access rights regardless of the surface owner's desires. Impeding a mineral owner's pursuit of development would likely result in hefty fines, Montalban stressed.

"That's meant to protect the rights of other landowners who want to see their minerals developed," Montalban said. Those who don't intend to welcome a potential boom may find the choice isn't that simple.

Calgary-based Primary Petroleum began mapping subsurface formations along the Front late last year. Mountainview Energy has acquired the exploration rights to roughly 80,000 acres in the area. Teton County already has several follow-up meetings scheduled for later this month.

Montana Oil and Gas Manager Tom Richmond feels the public anticipation—and fear—is outpacing reality. He calls the expectations along the Front "a little unreasonable," primarily because that area, like central Montana, is still in the exploratory phase. No one's proven that the area boasts a major oil play like the Bakken, he says, and until somebody does, "that kind of activity doesn't happen."

"The man camps aren't going to show up tomorrow," Richmond adds. "They may not show up at all."

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