False Victory in the North Fork

By Beacon Staff

The “Save the North Fork” crowd must be overjoyed. The road-pavers were sent packing, the loggers sued and burnt off, the Canuck coal miners bribed to go away, and now the gas lessees are, according to a timeline proudly posted by Sen. Max Baucus’s office, “voluntarily” giving up. A great victory, right?

Um, maybe not.

First, I really doubt there was anything “voluntary” going on. These leases were held for almost 30 years by big names: Chevron, BP, Conoco/Phillips, an Exxon-Mobil’s XTO subsidiary, Anadarko … neither amateurs nor wild-eyed wildcatters, nor boneheads.

They could read the handwriting on the wall. Last March, Baucus and fellow Sen. Jon Tester introduced the “North Fork Watershed Protection Act” to prohibit “all forms of location, entry, and patent under the mining laws” on all federal lands in the North Fork basin, including geothermal. In essence it would prevent future mining or minerals activity of any kind.

Further, in March of last year, our Montana Land Board voted to impose “no surface occupancy” rules (functionally a ban) on minerals in the Coal Creek State Forest – the very same day they voted to approve leasing Otter Creek’s 572 million tons of coal.

Double standard? You bet, and duly noted across the political spectrum.

Here’s something else. The Flathead gets its natural gas from Northwestern Energy’s (NWE) 10-inch line, constructed in 1962 as a branch from a main gas line that crosses the Canadian border north of Cut Bank, snakes clear down to Wyoming and beyond. According to a 2008 Federal Register notice, it is our sole gas supply – courtesy of our Canadian friends in Alberta.

In 2004, because of our busted boom, NWE first announced the construction of a “loop” from Summit to Nimrod/Java in 2004. But the 50-to-80-foot right-of-way would touch an “inventoried roadless area” and have to be kept clear of vegetation. That, plus our caved economy, might explain why seven years along, the Environmental Impact Statement is now on hold.

So, faced with a political and procedural “Mission Impossible” in western Montana not only getting natural gas out, but in, and new technology opening lots of better places to play, what would you do? Duh.

With the recession whacking our timber sector hard, a fair number of my friends have become migrant workers: They cross the border into North Dakota, live in camps, and send checks home to support our New Third World.

I’m thinking about it, too. Amid poking around for employment information, I stumbled across a U.S. Geological Survey report from 2006, part of a series of assessments ordered by Congress in 2000.

Therein was a national map showing “Mean Undiscovered Conventional Gas.” It showed the “Bakken-Lodgepole” system carrying 1.85 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas.

What jumped at me was the figure representing far western Montana, between the Idaho divide and the Continental Divide, 8.53 TCF.

Sure, that’s not much in comparison to either the North Slope’s 110 TCF plus, or America’s yearly consumption of 23 TCF, but the rest of the Northwest, including the Rocky Mountain Front, didn’t even get out of the decimal places. Furthermore, we’ve all heard the sturm and drang about the Marcellus Shale “unconventional” gas field in Pennsylvania? USGS’s potential for that entire region was 4.31 TCF.

How much is 8.5 TCF in dollars? According to the Natural Gas Weekly Update, in early March, the wellhead price for natural gas was running a little over $4 per thousand cubic feet – that’s $4 billion per trillion. Times 8.5? Try $34 billion.

Guess what else? With all the Arab countries enjoying revolt right about now, with a good chance of crazy mullahs taking power, the ratio of oil price to gas price is at “historically high levels.” That in turn will drive a shift toward natural gas use, and push prices back up.

So, Western Montana (not just the North Fork) appears to be sitting on oodles of our own natural gas, which we could produce (and SELL) ourselves in a responsible manner. Tell me, please, how is settling for sucking on the end of a straw a victory?

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