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Carbon County first in state to institute county-wide rules

RED LODGE, Mont. — Carol Nash and her family have been working the land outside of Belfry, Mont., for about 20 years. When oil and gas development was proposed in the region, she became involved in a countywide initiative to create stricter development regulations.

“We are trying to get rules and regulations in place that will protect the landowners, the farmers and the ranchers who can be effected by things in the air, things in the soil and things in the water,” Nash says. “This is where we live. This is where we work and our livelihood depends on all those things being safe.”

In its first update since 1989, the Carbon County Commissioners approved a countywide regulation in July following the county’s adoption of an updated growth policy last year. The new regulation gives landowners unprecedented property protections in the face of oil and gas development. Key provisions of the new regulation include:

  •  Requires approved site plan prior to the issuance of a conditional use permit, which would require a matter of public record before permit is granted.
  •  Provides landowners the right to baseline water testing to be paid for by the driller before drilling begins.
  •  Establishes a 750-foot minimum distance (or “setback”) of oil and gas development from dwellings.
  •  Ensures dust control on roads used for hauling near drilling sites with mitigation plans approved on a case-by-case basis.

Longtime Red Lodge, Mont., resident Sue Beug became involved nearly three years ago when Energy Corporation of America announced it would conduct test drilling along the Beartooth Front. The Carbon County Resource Council began holding meetings with citizens across the region to hear concerns and provide research to the planning board.

“What it means for the ag community is that [developers] can’t come in and put a well right next to a house,” Beug says. “Water protection is also extremely important because agriculture is dependent upon having a good source of water.”

In Montana, subsurface mineral rights are separate from surface land rights. Private companies can lease grounds from the government to extract natural resources. The climate and topography of Carbon County is ideal for ranching and livestock production, which is a significant component of the county’s economy. Nearly half of land use in Carbon County is dedicated to agricultural activities and more than half is privately-owned.

“This is an agricultural valley we live in and everyone will tell you the most important thing is water,” says Nash, who raises purebred Dexter Cattle and Navajo Churro Sheep on her family’s 150-acres. Like other producers in the area, the Nash family rely on irrigated water to ensure healthy harvests.

Currently, the State of Montana does not have minimum distance requirements between homes, and oil and gas related infrastructure. The Carbon County Resource Council hopes that similar rules and regulations will be adopted in counties across the state.

“In the middle of the day you can stop and see the eagles flying over the mountaintops,” Nash says. “The Montana way is a special way of life. The money isn’t important. Wide open spaces, pure water and fresh air – we do this for the love of it.”