Gazette opinion: Getting along with Beartooth neighbors

2014-04-03T00:00:00Z 2014-04-03T11:55:05Z Gazette opinion: Getting along with Beartooth neighbors The Billings Gazette
April 03, 2014 12:00 am

Energy Corporation of America opened its Billings office in October with fanfare and the announcement of plans to develop up to 50 wells in two areas of the Beartooth foothills, near Roscoe and Dean, and an undetermined number of oil or gas wells in the north end of the Big Horn Basin near the Montana-Wyoming border.

Bakken in Beartooths?

Speaking at the ribbon cutting ceremony, CEO John Mork said: “I would love to bring something like the Bakken, maybe something a little more orderly than what is going on in Williston right now, to the area in the Bighorns and other areas in Montana. It would fundamentally change these areas the way it has changed other areas of the United States.”

Those words alarmed some Beartooth area landowners who want to keep the landscape they love.

Since the CEO’s grand opening visit, the company has downplayed the size of its plans. So far, ECA has just “a handful of employees” in Montana and permits for drilling only two wells, Kyle Mork told The Gazette Editorial Board this week on a visit to Billings. Kyle Mork, a chemical engineer who lives in Charleston, W.V., is the chief operating officer for the company his father founded.

2 well permits

“We don’t have any plans to drill 50 wells,” Kyle Mork said Monday. He said the plan for this year is to drill one oil well in the Absarokee area where the company previously has drilled, and to drill one exploratory well in the Belfry area.”

He foresees the possibility of a couple more test wells in the next two years “to figure out what we will do.”

“It’s really a stretch to think this play could look like the Bakken,” he said.

Kyle Mork stressed the uncertainty of development at this exploratory stage. But if ECA eventually does start to develop dozens of oil/gas wells in the vicinity of the Beartooths, there is a viable option for increasing certainty for the company and its neighbors.

For nearly 14 years, the Stillwater Mining Co. and neighboring landowners in Stillwater and Sweet Grass counties have abided by the landmark Good Neighbor Agreement.

The agreement has allowed SMC to operate its platinum and palladium mines, facilitated communication and problem resolution, preserved local land and water values and avoided litigation. The company has donated conservation easements on about 3,000 acres of unmined land. A traffic agreement provides safe busing for miners and reduces traffic in the mining neighborhood.

We support responsible energy development. We understand how energy development can change a community, as witnessed in the Bakken. This type of agreement is simply one model to consider in balancing our constant need for energy with conserving beautiful land. Such development has been done in sensitive areas in Montana as well as Wyoming and other Western states. Energy and mineral production have been a part of Montana’s heritage since its founding.

There are many differences between an underground hard-rock mine and oil/gas production. However, a natural resource business and people living in the Beartooths have proven that the Good Neighbor Agreement provides mutual benefits.

Some of those neighbors have suggested that ECA negotiate such an agreement. If this company develops plans to be a significant player in Beartooth Country, the Morks will do well to take their neighbors’ agreeable advice.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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