Lawsuit filed over stifled public comment on proposed oil permit
January 10, 2014
The Northern Plains Resource Council and Carbon County Resource Council (CCRC) are challenging in court a decision by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation (BOGC) to prevent the public from testifying on a proposed oil well permit for the Belfry area last month.
A lawsuit was filed this morning with the Montana 13th District Court in Yellowstone County. (Cause No. DV-14-0027 Dept. 3)
At the December BOGC meeting in Billings, CCRC (an affiliate of Northern Plains) was taken off the agenda and not allowed to speak about the pending oil permit, despite having been granted the hearing and being on the agenda for weeks. This abrupt reversal came in an 11th-hour BOGC stunt claiming CCRC had not yet provided an official "service list," although the group hand-delivered, mailed, and faxed its protest to all parties weeks in advance.
Dec. 12 was the day of the hearing on the well of concern, Hunt Creek 1-H by Energy Corporation of America (ECA) east of Belfry, however once the CCRC protest was removed, there was no hearing for the well at all. Irrigators and other members of the public were not allowed to speak about a permit that was under consideration by the BOGC.
"Public participation is not only a vital right to Northern Plains and CCRC members – it is also a cornerstone of our Montana Constitution and the democratic processes that are at the heart of a free and open society," said Deb Muth of Red Lodge, who is Chair of Carbon County Resource Council.
"It's a shame that, if we want the right to speak about this proposed oil well permit in the Belfry area, we are forced to sue the BOGC. When people have to go to court just to have the right to speak, the system is very broken."
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While enforcing this technicality against the resource council, the BOGC looked the other way on an error made by the drilling company, whose start date on its application was off by a year.
"If the BOGC is going to be perfectionist," said Muth, "then it needs to require the same standard of the industry that it does of ordinary citizens. BOGC should render this permit invalid until it allows the public to testify."
Without hearing any public comment specific to the permit, the BOGC rubber-stamped the permit with no additional conditions or landowner protections. Citizens from the area were particularly concerned about the well's potential to pollute irrigation water.
"They're putting a reserve pit in a drainage and when we get flash floods, water flows right through there. But the company wouldn't know that, nor would the board, since no one will listen to our cautions," said Bonnie Martinell, organic farmer and producer just a few miles from the well.
"You would think they would want local input, since we know this area best, but instead the public was silenced. The BOGC appears to operate hand-in-hand with the oil and gas industry, although its job is to oversee that industry on behalf of the people of Montana," said Martinell.
Charles Sangmeister Chair of the Stillwater Protective Association observed that, "This oil well is the beginning of what ECA says could be a large development in Carbon and Stillwater counties. We have many members whose lives and property will be directly affected by both this well and the others along the Beartooth Front and Bighorn Basin. That's why we couldn't stand for the BOGC to simply keep the public from testifying on this permit."
–Northern Plains Resource Council