HELENA -- On a party-line vote, the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee on Thursday recommended that the Senate not confirm Mary Sexton of Choteau to the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation.
Sexton was director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for eight years under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, leaving the job in late December 2012. She previously served as a Teton County commissioner.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed her to the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, a part-time, quasi-judicial seven-member board.
The committee’s eight Republicans opposed her confirmation, while the five Democrats supported it.
Sexton’s nomination will proceed to Senate floor for consideration.
“I think my record stands for itself,” Sexton said in a telephone interview. “We had record oil and gas leasing on state lands when I was DNRC director.”
She said the department leased 2.8 million acres of state lands for oil and gas leasing and received $74 million in revenue for them for the state’s school trust during her eight-year tenure.
At the committee meeting on Tuesday, the chairman, Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said he couldn’t support Sexton’s nomination.
“I think she’s a very fine individual,” he said. “I think she’s got convictions for her beliefs. I do have problems with some of the stipulations that were handed down in her tenure. I wonder if some of that might carry through on her position on the board. “
He said there was an issue in central Montana where a rancher could no longer sell water to a drilling rig because it wasn’t part of his water rights.
“Why did it become an issue when we were starting to get drilling in central Montana?” asked Olson, who works in the oil and gas industry.
Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, sponsored the Senate resolution to confirm Sexton’s nomination.
He said he found the legislative audits of DNRC during her eight years had all been “clean.”
Some criticized her position on hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking.” It’s a method to pushing a combination of chemicals thousands of feet below the earth’s surface to break up geological formation to release oil and gas.
“There are people who have suggested she’s anti-fracking,” Jergeson said. “That is in error. There are areas in fracking where she thinks we need to pay attention to water rights and water quality. I don’t think she should be faulted for having that concern. ”
Water is “a precious resource in Montana,” Jergeson said.
In response, Sexton said, “I deferred to state law that they had to have legal availability of the water.”
Both in Teton County and the Bakken Formation, there have been examples of illegal water use for drilling and fracking, she said.
“I think they have to have a valid water right to require water for drilling and fracking,” she said.