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PAT BELLINGHAUSEN Opinion Editor

One of the most controversial topics on the pages of The Gazette is coalbed methane, a fact reaffirmed by letters to the editor printed today. This natural gas, clean-burning and relatively inexpensive to develop, lies in coal seams of southeastern Montana and northern Wyoming.

A week ago on this page, Gov. Judy Martz stated her staunch support for CBM development and sharply criticized “obstructionists” who, she said, had filed nine lawsuits to block development. The governor’s office sent similar op-ed columns to other Montana newspapers.

Dena Hoff, Glendive resident and chairwoman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, promptly responded to the governor’s criticism. NPRC has sounded warnings about environmental degradation if large quantities of salty water are discharged from CBM wells. In a guest column published on July 9, Hoff challenged the governor’s statement that there were nine lawsuits against CBM development in Montana, saying she knew of only five.

I called Martz spokesman Shane Hedges in Helena and asked what lawsuits the governor was referring to. Here’s what Hedges listed:NPRC lawsuit against the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, which was settled out of court.

NPRC lawsuit against Redstone Gas Partners, which wants to drill CBM wells.

Three filings in a permit DEQ was issuing. The administrative complaints were lodged by NPRC, Tongue River Water Users Association and Native Action.

Tongue River Water Users and NPRC lawsuits against DEQ. The lawsuits were filed in regard to the permit.

NPRC lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Land Management.

And, at No. 9, Hedges listed NPRC’s notice of intent to sue Fidelity Exploration and Production Co., which used to be called Redstone Gas Partners. No lawsuit had yet been filed.Asked whether administrative complaints and notice of intent to sue were properly called “lawsuits,” Hedges first said the governor was referring to “legal maneuvers” and later called back to say that the complaints were, in fact, lawsuits. He offered to put me in touch with a state lawyer who would back up that definition of lawsuit.

Journalists generally try to stick to the common meaning of words, so I consulted Webster’s dictionary, which defines lawsuit as “a suit between private parties in law or equity; a case before a civil court.”

Whether something is described as a lawsuit, a legal maneuver or defense of clean water depends on which side of the CBM debate you’re on.Energy inventoryHere’s another story with a language challenge. Wednesday’s Gazette carried a front-page Associated Press report that said GOP members of the U.S. House Resources Committee had introduced legislation requiring an inventory of all federal lands, including most national park lands, for coal as well as geothermal and wind energy potential.

The idea of drilling or mining in national parks is diametrically opposed to the purpose of parks that were set aside for the enjoyment of present and future generations of Americans. Drilling for geothermal energy in Yellowstone would be the death of one of the world’s two largest surviving thermal areas, a natural wonder with 10,000 thermal features and 300 geysers.

In pursuit of details, I checked the Resources Committee Web site and read a GOP staff memo on the proposed Energy Security Act. The memo stated that the bill “provides for an inventory of wind, solar, coal and geothermal power production on all federal lands except parks and wilderness areas. I scanned the 64-page bill and found similar language.

But a communications staff member for the Democrats on the committee pointed out that not all national park lands are “parks.” There are national battlefields, national recreation areas and national historical sites in the national park system. These lands aren’t exempted, she said from Washington.

Considering that the Senate just passed the House bill banning drilling new projects in national monuments, the Energy Security Act may never get beyond committee. However, the bill was scheduled for mark-up Tuesday. Maybe the language will be clarified then.Pat Bellinghausen can be reached at speakup@billingsgazette.com or at (406) 657-1303.

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