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What the frack?



Roughly half of Montana's oil and gas production comes from hydraulically fractured, or fracked, wells. Which is why Sally Owen-Still, who lives in Sweet Grass County, and many other landowners in central and eastern Montana are dismayed by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas's decision last week not to require companies to disclose the chemicals contained in their fracking fluids.

"I wish the board would have erred on the side of what I consider to be a conservative point of view," Owen-Still says, "which is protect the water, protect the people, until you really know what's going on."


Fracking is a process in which a mix of water, chemicals and sand is injected into wells to extract oil and natural gas from rock formations deep underground, unlocking large supplies in places such as Montana's Bakken Shale Formation. As its use has grown, especially in the East, so too has concern over the fluids' impacts on water quality. A Congressional report, published in April, found that between 2005 and 2009, 14 leading oil and gas companies used more than 2,500 fracking products containing 750 chemicals. Overall, the companies pumped 780 million gallons of the fluids underground, not including the added water.

But Tom Richmond, administrator of the Montana Board of Oil and Gas, says that in Montana there are typically thousands of feet of separation between the deepest water and the formation being fractured, "which is why we've never had any incident of groundwater pollution due to fracking," he says.

Board chair Linda Nelson, of Medicine Lake, says last Wednesday's unanimous vote was an attempt to balance disclosure "with not making things so stringent that we absolutely cut off fracking altogether and stop oil exploration." The new disclosure rules, which go into effect Aug. 26, honor companies' trade secrets, unless fluids spill or sicken someone.

"It was our intent to get something done that was reasonable for Montana before either the EPA or Congress or the legislature did something for us that went overboard, either way," Nelson says.

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