illustration by bruce morser
in folds, cracks, pockets, and reservoirs. Men have been trying to get at this wealth since 1902, when a prospector named Sam Somes found oil near Swiftcurrent Creek, at the edge of what is now Glacier National Park. It has been a story of modest booms and long busts, but it’s the enduring hope of a big play that keeps men like Dan Lindseth in business. He and I drove out to Choteau’s miniature airport one morning to meet his partner, Harold Yeager, a cattle rancher with a sideline in equipment maintenance. We found him working on a feed truck, and his workshop was filled with the rich, yeasty smell of half-fermented grain. On the wall of the cozy adjoining office a portrait of a white-haired Indian chief hinted at the two men’s attitude toward federal regulations, which they blame for hindering the pursuit of oil and gas. The accompanying text read: “When told the reason for daylight saving time the Old Indian said, ‘Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.” Lindseth and Yeager both grew up in Choteau. While Yeager never left, Lindseth moved away to pursue a career with IBM, returning in 2002 after he retired. Soon after that, he said, a Canadian company, Startech, decided to pursue drilling permits 15 miles or so north of town, exploiting a lease that predated a 1997 moratorium on oil and gas development on public lands along the Front. “That led to a big scrap with the environmentalists,” Lindseth said. “Lots of folks were adamantly opposed. In the end, the BLM [the federal Bureau of Land Management] said no. I guess they had bigger fish to fry.” This was frustrating to those around Choteau who still recalled the income spikes from earlier mini-booms, he said. “They’d say, gee whiz, I remember I sent my kid to college, or bought a new truck, added another 40 acres. Now they were saying, with kind of a heavy heart, well, that’s probably the last we’ve seen of oil and gas.” But Lindseth and Yeager reminded their neighbors that leasing mineral rights on privately owned land, right up to the boundaries of these public lands—the Lewis and Clark National Forest, three wilderness areas including the legendary Bob Marshall, and Glacier National Park—was a different matter. “We told them, you can do anything you want on your own property,” Lindseth said. “Drill a hole wherever you like, see what you find. Ranchers here are land-rich but cash-poor, and Teton County could benefit from taxes on oil production. So Harold and I had a couple of beers, talked it over, and said, what if we could find companies to take up those leases?” The two men went knocking on doors, eventually putting together a package of about 125,000 contiguous leasable acres, enough to attract another Canadian outfit, Primary Petroleum. Primary started drilling in 2008, four wells at first and then, in 2011, nine more, three of which were fracked. The company entered a joint venture with a much bigger player, Los Angeles–based Occidental Petroleum, and expanded its Montana holdings to 370,000 acres, representing a $41 million investment. That may be small potatoes by oil industry standards, but it was enough for Lindseth and Yeager to think they might be on to something big. And some of the strikes seemed highly promising, Yeager said. He reached for an old juice bottle that was sitting on a shelf and unscrewed the cap so that I could savor the sharp reek of the black gunk inside. But then, at the end of 2012, “Oxy” pulled out. Several of the wells were capped after failing to produce commercially viable quantities of oil, and that seemed to be that—again. But Lindseth is an optimist by nature. “We’ve done the most comprehensive exploration that’s ever
from nrdc Energy smarts
bobby mcenaney Deputy director of NRDC’s western renewable energy project, based in Washington, D.C.
We think of Montana as one of our most beautiful, unspoiled states, but that’s changing, isn’t it? No matter how remote or pristine a place may be, sooner or later dirty energy will come calling. In Montana right now this means a host of problems, whether it’s megaloads of equipment barreling through on its way to Canada’s tar sands or mile-and-a-half-long trains carrying coal that’s being mined strictly for export. The corporations behind these schemes have no real regard for the communities that are impacted, and the threats will be never-ending unless we find a more rational approach to energy development. Obviously some very powerful forces are at play here. So what are the alternatives? By itself, the threat posed by dirty energy is enormous. Add in the damage occurring as a result of climate change, and the problems confronting Montana can seem overwhelming. But we know that if we substantially increase the use of clean energy, it can make a real difference in addressing climate change. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should sugarcoat clean-energy development, because it can also have a real impact on wildlife and viewsheds. So the solutions can be complex. As a native of Montana, what changes have you seen in the way people think about these issues? Growing up as a child of the West, one of my more vivid memories was visiting the Berkeley Pit in Butte, which was a massive open-pit copper mine that now has the distinction of being one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. The nightmarish image of that pit and its toxic legacy were a glaring symbol of the gold rush mentality of our past. But Montana has gone out of its way to learn from those painful mistakes, as you can see from its efforts to site renewable energy projects in the right places. And because the deployment of clean energy is still in its infancy, we can approach it in a more deliberate and scientific manner, planning ahead of time with land management agencies and private land trusts to permanently protect areas like the Rocky Mountain Front, where any kind of energy development is inappropriate. Some wind and solar companies are already embracing “smart from the start” siting for their projects, which places dirty energy on notice that the old way of doing business is no longer acceptable.
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