The Bakken bust 

It could be coming soon to a town near you

Since Montana is home to the largest Superfund site in the nation, you'd think its politicians and state agencies would have learned something about the transience of resource extraction booms and the long-lasting effects of the environmental, social and economic busts that follow them. But as oil and gas development along the now-booming Bakken Formation shows, the lure of fast money overtakes prudent public policy and—surprise, surprise—there appears to be no partisan divide among the development cheerleaders that our top politicians have become.

For most Montanans, in our populated urban centers, the raging development pressures now being experienced in the tiny towns of eastern Montana seem far, far away. We don't see the blazing torches of gas flares, breathe the petroleum fumes, watch endless lines of trucks bringing pipes, drilling rigs and supplies or see the man camps and scattered trailers, RVs and ramshackle abodes that characterize "the oil patch." Nor, as the citizens of Sidney recently experienced, are we pierced by the loss of a local teacher who was presumably murdered, and buried in an as-yet unfound grave, by two men who followed the smell of money to the oil fields.

For most Montanans, the massive changes being caused by the thousands of people now seeking to strike it rich from petroleum extraction mean little more than the stories we read and hear in the media, the low and falling prices for natural gas and the endless fodder that petro-tax dollars give our governor to brag about the illusory budget "surplus" for which he takes so much credit without a mention of the environmental disasters that fracking could leave behind.

One thing our politicians like to hide behind as they sweep the oil-boom dirt under the rug is the efficacy of state regulation, which we are supposed to believe has somehow transmogrified from its latent, reactive past to a proactive, protective present. But, as a recent performance audit by the Legislative Auditor's Office reveals, we would be mistaken to think that things have changed in the resource extraction business.

The report, which can be found in its entirety online, took a hard look at how well the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC), a regulatory entity attached to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in the Oil and Gas Conservation Division, is doing its job. The BOGC's job is to "regulate oil and natural gas exploration, and development operations that occur in Montana. Regulation occurs by requiring drilling permits, classifying wells, disseminating board orders that establish well spacing and other drilling requirements, conducting field inspections, and requiring performance bonds to ensure site restoration."

The results are not encouraging. The opening sentence of the report is perhaps the most telling: "The Board of Oil and Gas Conservation must improve its inspections and enforcement processes to more effectively regulate the state's 17,600 active oil and gas wells." The key word here is "effectively"; when you read the details, it becomes apparent that the state's regulation of the oil and gas boom is anything but effective. A whopping 58 percent of wells have not been inspected (or have no documentation showing they've been inspected) within the last five years. When a well is inspected and found to be in violation of the law or administrative rules, the non-compliance rate for identified violations was 35 percent in 2010.

Astoundingly, although "locating, drilling, operating and production cannot cause unnecessary loss" by law, an estimated 25 percent of the natural gas is being flared off into the atmosphere, not only wasting the resource but also spewing pollution into the air and costing tax revenue because the gas is not being captured.

For an idea of just how much gas is being flared off, check out the satellite pictures online. You'll be amazed, because the light coming off the flaring and drilling rigs far outshines Bismarck, which is North Dakota's capital, and covers more area than Minneapolis. As reported recently in a publication by the Montana Environmental Information Center, "this carbon spill into Montana's atmosphere amounts to enough energy to power tens of thousands of homes annually."

When I told a friend who was born and raised in Glendive that I was going to write about this topic, tears came to his eyes. He's seen the destruction visited on his family. Yet such socioeconomic impacts could pale beside the environmental disaster that will likely follow due to Montana's lax regulation. The drill rigs, man camps and unsavory camp followers will one day vanish, but fracking chemicals could stay behind forever in the groundwater.

The Bakken oil and gas boom—and bust—could be heading farther west, right up to the Rocky Mountain Front. We could and should act now to protect ourselves, yet it seems the only act we're likely to see is more politicians tap dancing in the winds of political expediency while they pour our future down the drain.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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