By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The federal Bureau of Land Management is approving new natural gas well development in the Upper Missouri River Breaks, two years after the area was declared a national monument.
Gary Slagel, manager of the monument, said today his decision to approve the development fits the use of the area President Clinton declared appropriate when he created the monument.
"With the proper mitigation the impacts are minor," Slagel said.
Dennis Tighe, president of the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, said his organization wants to be sure that development of leases on the monument doesn't damage it, but that an environmental assessment done by BLM for the proposed development addresses that.
"It's important that the BLM structure their mitigation measures under the requirements of the monument proclamation, as it appears they have," he said.
The environmental assessment is on file for public review through July 18. Slagel said that after BLM reviews the public comments about the assessment, the bureau will either make adjustments or continue with the proposed development as written.
Opposition to the development without a reason related to damage of resources would not stop the development, he added.
"It's not a vote," he said. "If there's legitimate reason we may add mitigation or modify the proposal."
Macum Energy has proposed to upgrade and maintain 7 miles of existing road and constructing about 388 feet of new road. It also would install 8.65 miles of new pipeline along the road.
The road and pipeline would connect two natural gas wells - an existing well on federal land and a new well Macum will drill on private land within the monument boundaries. The existing well was drilled in 1975 and has never had a pipeline to transport natural gas.
The road is an existing access road known as the Ervin Ridge Road. It begins on the road providing access to the Stafford Ferry and ends overlooking the Missouri River.
Clinton created the monument on Jan. 17, 2001, a few days before he left office. It has been controversial, with many landowners who have inholdings in the monument opposed to its creation, and others calling for even more protection of the area.
The proclamation creating the monument prohibits new leases but allows exploration and development of existing leases with proper care and management.
Slagel said the management required by the environmental assessment will prevent any long-term impacts to the scenic integrity of the area.
Tighe said he has looked at the environmental assessment, but hasn't read it in detail. Once he does, he will make comments on the proposal for the Friends of the Missouri Breaks Monument, expressing their concern that any development preserve the monument.
"At some point in the future we should not be able to tell that gas leasing has taken place," he said.
The BLM proposed action has numerous requirements for Macum to prevent damage to the area.
The environmental assessment refers to an earlier assessment that found no significant impact would result from developing leases owned by Macum, Klabzuba Oil and Gas Wells and Ocean Energy Resources. The Montana Wilderness Association has appealed the finding of that assessment to the Interior Board of Land Appeals in August 2002.
The new environmental assessment covers a specific proposal to develop two of the nine wells covered in the earlier proposal. Information from the earlier assessment was used in writing the new assessment.
The Montana Wilderness Association could not be reached for comment this morning.
Tighe said the appeal, which is pending, won't stop the drilling.
The proposed alternative for the two Macum wells answers his organization's concerns much better than the first assessment, he said. For example, he said, Macum requested running the pipeline through an undeveloped area in the first proposal, while the proposed alternative requires that it run along an existing road.
The environmental alternative is available during regular business hours, 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the BLM Havre Field Station and the Lewistown Field Office. BLM requests that comments are received by July 18.
Comments should be sent to Brandi Hecker, Bureau of Land Management, Havre Field Station, 1704 Second St. W, Drawer 911, Havre, MT 59501-0911.
For additional information, call Hecker at 262-2829 or Slagel at (406) 538-1950.