Drilling for more oil and gas along the western edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation appears inevitable, but long-term plans are fuzzy and information is scarce.
Denver, Colo. based Anschutz Corp. owns the oil and gas lease on the reservation closest to Glacier National Park. Company spokesman Jim Monaghan said Anschutz has drilled seven wells to date and are assessing each well as they are completed.
Monaghan said he couldn't elaborate on the time frame for completion of the wells or the company's future plans on their lease. Groups concerned about potential impacts to grizzly bear recovery habitat, the Park's ecosystem and groundwater say it will be hard to measure the effects of the drilling until a full environmental assessment of all planned drilling is completed.
"We just don't talk about our plans until we do them," Monaghan said.
The fracking push
The first of those wells was hydraulically fractured last year and has a pump-jack on site pulling fluid out of the ground, said Grinnell Day Chief, the head of the Blackfeet Oil and Gas Bureau.
"Eventually the plan is to frack them all," Day Chief said.
Use of hydraulic fracturing in recent years has ramped up across the U.S. The process enables oil companies to get at hard-to-reach resources. The controversial process involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mixed with a chemical cocktail at a high pressure into the earth. The pressure causes fissures in underground rock layers, allowing oil and gas to be extracted.
The tribe doesn't know what the first well is producing at this point, but Day Chief said he hopes to know by the end of the summer. He thinks the remaining six wells will be "fracked" sometime in July, which would give the tribe more of an idea of what's actually in the ground by September or October.
This year has seen a flurry of drilling across the reservation. With typically five exploratory wells drilled a year, the reservation has seen 25 so far this year with plans for 34 more this summer. Day Chief said plans call for the number of new wells drilled this year to double in 2012.
"It's all tied to eastern Montana's Bakken activity," he said. "We were always looking to develop the oil resources."
The Bakken Shale formation stretches across northeastern Montana into North Dakota and Canada. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the formation contains about 3.65 billion barrels of oil, 1.85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 148 million barrels of natural gas liquids.
According to Day Chief, seismic data collected on the reservation indicates the western side also holds oil and natural gas reserves. With oil selling for $78 a barrel and natural gas bringing in $4 per million cubic feet, the Blackfeet could earn significant income from the 20 percent royalties in their contract with Anschutz, Day Chief said.
However, with hydraulic fracturing and drilling comes a number of environmental concerns that affect more than just the area directly around the drill sites. One of the biggest concerns is groundwater contamination, but Day Chief said he's not worried. The drill depths range from 8,000 to 10,000 feet, well below the water table on the reservation, which can be from 100 to 400 feet below the surface, he said.
"To date, we've never had any issues with the ground water," he said.
Earlier this year, however, Anschutz Exploration was sued over contaminated groundwater in Chemung County, N.Y. The lawsuit alleges that Anschutz's drilling caused the contamination, while the company alleges that the area always had issues with their drinking water.
Monaghan and Day Chief said the company has complied with all regulations for drilling and the drilling process in Montana.
Water quality is only one big issue, according to Will Hammerquist, at the National Park Conservation Association's Glacier field office. He's also concerned natural gas flaring could affect the Park's air quality and the St. Mary River could become contaminated.
While he said he respects the tribe's right to govern as a sovereign nation, Hammerquist says full disclosure is needed to properly assess potential impacts.
"None of the natural resources stop at borders - these are issues that cross borders," he said. "They bleed into the Park and they bleed downstream."
While the NPCA is paying close attention to all drilling on the reservation, Hammerquist said, Anschutz's drilling is their biggest concern because the company hasn't released blueprints for their future plans. He said he's worried Anschutz might go "full field" with their development, dotting the landscape outside the park with wells that could affect tourism.
"It transforms a landscape into an industrial landscape," he said. "That's a big decision, and there needs to be a public discussion."
Park is watching
The Park's planning and environmental specialist, Mary Riddle, said they only know what they've read in the newspapers and what the Bureau of Land Management has told them, which is not much.
"We want this to be successful for them," she said of the Blackfeet's efforts. "If this is going to be done, it needs to be done with as little impact to the national park resources as possible."
When the Bureau of Indian Affairs' formal proposal comes out, Riddle said the Park will apply to be a compliance partner on the environmental assessment. If accepted, it would mean the Park could participate by writing portions of the environmental document that deals with Park resources or be an early reviewer of the assessment.
Riddle said impacts from the drilling that could affect the Park include light pollution at night, noise affecting wildlife migrations, view sheds and interference with the grizzly bear ecosystem. The grizzly bear recovery area extends beyond the Park onto the Blackfeet Reservation.
Tribal wildlife biologist Dan Carney said efforts are underway to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
"We're trying to steer them away from the best bear areas," Carney said.
Carney said he's working with the BIA, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Anschutz to come up with policies that will minimize impacts, but at this point they don't know where or how many wells will be drilled.
"They need more data," Carney said. "And we'll work with them on where they can drill."