CHOTEAU -- Curiosity about the rush of oil prospecting along the Rocky Mountain Front drew more than 200 people for a gusher of information on Thursday.
"I was told there was going to be a lot of people, but I had no idea," Teton County sanitarian Corrine Rose said as people scrounged for seats in the packed Stage Stop Inn conference room.
Rose helped arrange the meeting after fielding dozens of questions from residents about everything from water quality changes to the creation of "man-camps" housing hundreds of workers.
Oil companies have drilled at least six exploratory wells in Teton County since last fall. And hundreds of ranchers and farmers have been approached by "land men" -- leasing agents hoping to buy rights for further explorations.
So far, no oil is being pumped. But Rose said the level of activity has prompted "a lot of talk, concern and excitement about the future of energy development in our area."
"This is a topic that catches everybody's eye," Teton County Commissioner Jim Hodgskiss told the crowd. "We're trying to be ahead of the curve, but we haven't been able to figure out where the curve's at."
The oil appears to extend in an arc from the Bakken formation fields of Eastern Montana, up into Alberta, and south under the prairie at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. With oil selling at more than $100 a barrel and new horizontal drilling techniques opening more fields, Teton, Pondera and Glacier counties all foresee big changes.
Hydraulic fracking will probably be the method for extracting oil along the Front. U.S. Bureau of Land Management petroleum engineer Don Judice said it should be very different than fracking in the eastern United States.
"Right now, it's a science project," Judice said. "It could be nothing, they take their black eyes and go away. Or it could be -- ‘Holy crap, we found it.' "
Fracking for oil and gas along the Front typically takes place several thousand feet below the drinking water aquifers, Judice said. That means the chances that a petroleum fracking project could contaminate a drinking water supply was very low.
"There are one million fracking wells drilled in the U.S. And we haven't had a problem yet," Judice said.
An incident in Wyoming where contamination is suspected from fracking involves a 900-foot-deep well -- much shallower than the projects proposed on the Rocky Mountain Front.
Judice also discounted the risk of chemicals in the fracking fluids.
"There's a lot of talk that this is secret stuff," Judice said. "Actually, these are some of the same chemicals you can find under the sink at your house."
"The problems are more likely to occur on the surface," warned Joe Meek of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Spills of drilling materials at a well site could seep down into drinking water sources. Meek advised careful water-well monitoring in advance as well as community vigilance around drilling activity.
The human impact could also be dramatic. Steve Kilbreath of DEQ said a recent trip to the Eastern Montana oil fields provided some warnings. For example, it's almost impossible to get a hotel room or meal within 90 miles of Sidney, Culbertson or Glendive.
"Sidney could grow by 5,000 or 10,000 people in the next few years," Kilbreath said. "They're building three new hotels in Sidney, and they're already rented for two years out."
Many workers are living in work camps that don't fit under any Montana subdivision plan. Kilbreath said the camps are regulated in terms of public water supply, which ensures proper protection of drinking water and treatment of waste water. But that doesn't cover the extra police, road damage, schools, electrical supply or other services. And then there are "zombie systems."
"You've got to check for skeletons in your closets -- they can come back to bite you," he warned county planners. These are old mobile home parks and housing developments -- many from the 1980s oil boom -- that are getting resurrected as work camps. The problem is many were never finished and lack proper plumbing, electricity and wastewater disposal.
Water rights will be another issue, according to Scott Irvin of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
"Six months ago, we almost never got questions about fracking in the Lewistown office," Irvin said. "Now we're getting three to four a week, and it's climbing fast."
Several water basins along the Front are legally closed, meaning no new water rights can be granted, Irvin said. That means oil companies seeking water for fracking -- often 500,000 gallons or more per well -- must buy water from existing rights holders.
While irrigators often have access to that amount, their rights are typically seasonal. Oil companies would water year-round, not just during planting times.
Cities and towns also have water supplies that can potentially be sold for fracking. But Irvin warned that involves difficult permits and limitations.
The audience had still more questions -- many of which needed future meetings to answer. Several people wondered about the safety of fracking chemicals and the methods of disposing of millions of gallons of wastewater. Others asked what would happen to elderly people who can't afford huge increases in home and food prices.
There were also doubts about the government's ability to monitor all these changes.