FOUR MILES southeast of Lewistown, some of the purest water in the world flows from the ground at a rate of 90 million gallons per day. It emerges through natural fissures from the Madison aquifer, a thick and porous layer of limestone that sucks up water high in the nearby Snowy and Big Belt Mountains before diving a mile deep below the surrounding plains. Without filtration or treatment, the cold and slightly sweet water is piped directly to the faucets of Lewistown's 5,900 residents.
Eric Vanderbeek, who heads up scientific research for the Madison Aquifer Alliance, took me to see the spring on an overcast early summer day. We parked in the dirt driveway of the fish hatchery and walked among broad willow trees and around crystal clear pools percolating from small outlying springs to a giant concrete cistern housing the main spring. From its outlet rushed a small river. "Guess you could drink right out of there," Vanderbeek said, gesturing to the roaring flow.
The Madison Aquifer Alliance is a handful of Lewistown residents who have organized in recent months in response to a potential onslaught of oil drilling in the region, including the area that overlies and recharges the aquifer. In October 2011, the company logo for PetroShale quietly appeared in a downtown window, followed a month later by Central Montana Resources (based in Texas), and then by Troy Energy. Halliburton was negotiating a deal to buy a big lot on the south side of town. Vanderbeek and others got curious and started talking.
It turned out the companies had their sights on the Heath shale, a cousin to the nearby Bakken shale that has been getting all the attention as crossroads in North Dakota and eastern Montana rupture into boom towns. Like the Bakken, the Heath has been drilled before, but unconventional drilling using hydraulic fracturing ("fracking")—in which a mix of water, sand, and chemicals is injected at high pressure deep into the ground to break open shale to release oil and gas—has spurred another round of wildcatting. Stretching across the middle of Montana from the Rocky Mountain Front to Miles City, with Lewistown right in the center, is the "Mini Bakken."
But the area around Lewistown "isn't the Bakken," says Vanderbeek, "it's a science experiment." That's because only a few thin formations of shale and sandstone separate the Heath shale from the Madison aquifer. To compound the risk, the region has "torn up geology," says a long-time well-driller who didn't want to use his name. "It's very possible that any fracking pressures would escape all over this territory. We're kind of concerned about that."
I FIRST MET Eric in April when he came to Bozeman with his wife and two young daughters. He was getting the word out and said the Alliance was teaming up with the Northern Plains Resource Council to show the documentary Gasland. John Fenton, a rancher from Pavillion, Wyoming—a town made infamous by gas drilling gone wrong—was going to be there. I made the drive to Lewistown.
The film turned out a good crowd. "An event like this is unprecedented here," said Harry Felton, a long-time resident of Lewistown who works with the Alliance. People streamed steadily into the big meeting room at the Yogo Inn. Judging by the hats and sun-worn faces, most of the crowd comprised of farmers and ranchers.
Gasland has been attacked by drilling proponents as sensational propaganda, and no doubt some people at the Yogo arrived skeptical. The film has a glitchy style and gloomy tone, and features people whose lives have descended into a hell of bizarre illnesses, bureaucratic corruption, and flaming tap water. But when Fenton, standing tall with his cowboy hat on, got up front and told his story, heads started nodding.
Speaking in his modest and straightforward way, Fenton recounted how in just a few years his productive multi-generational ranch has become a worthless and polluted property. Like most of his neighbors, he doesn't own his mineral rights, and now he sees 45 gas wells from his front porch. In one day 14 cows died from drinking the well water, and his kid got seizures every time a new well was vented. "People need to educate themselves," he said, "because you're only going to hear from the gas and oil companies what they want you to hear."
After the film, as the crowd made a final dash to buy raffle tickets, I asked a man, who turned out to be a rancher, what he thought. "The more I think about it," he said, pausing, "the more I say to hell with it."
GIVEN ALL the stories like Fenton's, it's difficult to make sense of the argument, made routinely by proponents of oil and gas drilling, that there hasn't been a single documented case of contamination from fracking. But the more one digs for answers, the more one finds reasons to not trust these interlopers with the Madison aquifer.
A February 2012 report by the Energy Institute of the University of Texas is characteristic of the rationale made for unconventional drilling. It discusses matter-of-factly the drilling process and potential problems. It does not say that unconventional drilling hasn't polluted groundwater—it just says that "there is at present little or no evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing of shale at normal depths.”
That's due in large part to a lack of data. The leasing companies rush in to get signatures without doing any baseline water testing, and if the landowner wants a water test, the cost is hundreds of dollars, says Stoney Burk, a lawyer in Choteau, Montana, who was at the Yogo. Sometimes neighboring landowners don't even know that drilling is going to happen until the rigs show up. Little wonder that there is "insufficient baseline sampling or monitoring to establish the impacts of drilling, fracturing, and other operations," according to the Energy Institute report.
Data is also scarce because in most states, including Montana, companies are not required to disclose the chemical composition of fracking fluids. Senate Bill 86, drafted during the 2011 Montana legislative session, would have required companies to disclose information to doctors if contamination was suspected as a cause of illness, but the bill was voted down 8-6 along party lines in its committee. Without knowing what chemicals are used, it's hard to prove that fracking caused the contamination.
Another part of the misconception, says Vanderbeek, is the way that drilling proponents parse the word "fracking" itself. For most people, fracking means the whole drilling process; to the industry, however, it means only the stage when the well is pressurized to break up deep shale formations. Contamination can occur during earlier stages of drilling, when "drilling muds," with their own mix of lubricating chemicals, are sent shooting into aquifers—but that is not "fracking."
As a final stopgap the companies make nondisclosure agreements—that is, they "pay somebody thousands of dollars to not disclose what the facts are," says Burk. Faced with a polluted well or a sudden illness, and with few prospects for legal recourse, many landowners "will accept a mere pittance" to keep quiet.
Despite all this, there is widespread evidence that unconventional drilling is polluting groundwater. Directly disputing the industry's claims, an independent study release on May 1, 2012, confirmed that fracking was directly responsible for contaminating a Pavillion water well. The study adds to a heap of other cases in which groundwater in drilling areas has been made undrinkable. According to the Northern Plains Resource Council, one water well in the Jonah gas fields of Wyoming was found to have 1,500 times the safe amount of carcinogenic benzene.
For their part, the oil and gas companies say they are just following the rules. Central Montana Resources responded in an email that they "take every precaution" to "prevent impact to underlying aquifers," and work diligently to ensure that their operations "meet or exceed all local, state and federal regulations." Amazingly, though, unconventional drilling is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act as they pertain to groundwater. On top of that there is little or no regulatory oversight. Fenton says he spent years trying to get help from the state agencies, only to be told that there couldn't be anything wrong with his water. "In Wyoming," he says, "you can get your approvals and inspections over the phone."
That has Vanderbeek worried, especially because fracking directly over a sensitive aquifer is largely unprecedented. (In Pavillion and other places, contamination has occurred in smaller, shallower aquifers far above the strata that are fracked.) So far, he says, the Board of Oil and Gas has not taken seriously the potential risk to Lewistown's water. "It's the fox watching over the hen house."
BUT THE ALLIANCE has avoided any generalized arguments against oil and gas development—even fracking—to focus instead on raising awareness about the aquifer. "Keep the politics aside," says Vanderbeek, "because everybody needs water." In the long run, he says, it is the water that will be more valuable. The Alliance is not opposed to drilling in the entire region, but is calling for an immediate moratorium on drilling in the areas that recharge the aquifer until more is known about the potential impacts.
Oil and gas companies, however, are already invested in the area. Central Montana Resources holds 514,000 acres across 6 counties in central Montana, though most of those leases are east of Lewistown and away from the aquifer recharge. Of greater concern are 28,000 acres of state lands in Fergus and Judith Basin counties that were auctioned in March by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for $1.50 an acre to Nevada-based PetroShale. Many of those holdings lie at the base of the mountains, within the aquifer recharge area. A spokesman for PetroShale said he couldn't comment in detail, but that the company's plans were still in the "infancy stage," and that more would be revealed in August.
Vanderbeek says he gets the impression that most people in Lewistown aren't all that excited at the prospect of drilling, even if few are outspokenly opposed. But a couple of the big players in town are drumming up the money to be made from good oil jobs and leasing agreements. That wealth may be real, Vanderbeek says, but it pales in comparison to the long-term wealth of pure and abundant water. "Why are we willing to risk a huge aquifer," he says, "hundreds and hundreds of years of water, for 10 years of gain?" -TBM
Author's Note: "Faces of Fracking: Stories from the Front Lines" will be held in June 4th, 12:00pm at the Bozeman Public Library, and 7:00pm at the Livingston Elks Club. Two women who have direct experience with fracking will tell their stories.
Marshall Swearingen aspires to be a long-term citizen of Greater Yellowstone. Last month, in his second article for the Magpie, "A Watershed Moment," he provided the most in-depth coverage available on the Bozeman Municipal Watershed Fuels Reduction Project.