Energy in the Eye of the Beholder

Chief Mountain in Montana, part of the Rocky Mountain Front.

I had an e-mail the other day from a friend who owns a ranch in central Montana, in which she quoted the old line that all environmentalists know by heart, from the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Instead of a parking lot, though, my friend was talking about wind farms. And that spoke to the huge dilemma that many of my environmentalist friends in this part of the world are now struggling with: should they oppose the paving of paradise only when it's for the purpose of producing dirty energy or sprawl? Or should they fight to stop all forms of industrial-scale development in special places, even the clean kind? And, come to that, who’s to say what constitutes a "special place?"

My friend’s ranch is within sight of the beautiful Crazy Mountains and close to the Judith Gap, a natural wind funnel that separates the central and southern parts of the state. Montana has been something of a laggard among the Plains states in developing its wind power potential, although the area around the Judith Gap has until now been in the vanguard, with a string of huge new wind farms now proposed or already in the permitting process.

Now, however, the wind revolution is moving steadily toward the northwestern corner of Montana, which means that it is edging ever closer to the Rocky Mountain Front. This section of the Continental Divide is one of the most spectacular landscapes in the United States: an extraordinary vertical wall rising almost sheer four or five thousand feet above the Plains and stretching for more than 100 miles from the Canadian border and Glacier National Park to the state capital, Helena. In addition to Glacier, it contains thousands of square miles of national forest as well as the federally designated Bob Marshall Wilderness, the purest roadless area in the Lower 48. Contemplating the view of the Front from the east is one of those things that leaves your jaw on the floor. Yet in a way, contemplating this map of Montana’s wind power resources is almost as dramatic. It’s color-coded on six levels, from "marginal" (pale orange) to "superb" (deep purple). The face of the Rocky Mountain Front is an unbroken band of deep purple. For much the year, the winds can knock a rancher clean out of his saddle.

I stopped to take a look at the first big wind farm in northwestern Montana three summers ago, soon after it opened. Glacier I and II, as the two stages of the project are known, are just outside the small farm town of Ethridge. Together they generate 210 megawatts of energy. (A second farm nearby, known as Rim Rock, opened just last month, adding another 189 megawatts.) Although the Glacier project produces less than half the power of an average coal-fired plant, 140 giant turbines still account for a good chunk of real estate. But you’re in more or less flat wheat-growing country here, 50 miles or so from Glacier National Park. From a nearby rise, on a clear day, you might just be able to see its peaks through binoculars. So did the wind farm spoil the "viewshed," to use a word much in fashion? Not really, at least not to my subjective eye -- and when it comes to the appreciation of a natural landscape, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Which makes its legal protection uncommonly difficult.

Compounding the problem of my environmentalist friends is that the fear of paved parking lots along the Rocky Mountain Front doesn’t just refer to wind power. Petroleum geologists now believe -- or perhaps, seeking to excite investors, they say they believe -- that the Bakken Formation, home to the biggest oil and gas play in the country, may not be limited to eastern Montana and North Dakota, where the current boom is centered (see "Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom"). It may extend all the way west to the Front. That has spurred a rush to obtain drilling leases by companies like Primary Petroleum, whose president, Mike Marrandino, thinks the land bordering the Front may contain between 13 and 15 million barrels of recoverable oil per square mile -- to be extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The first wave of exploration has been centered on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which directly abuts Glacier National Park. These mountains are sacred to the Blackfeet, who call them "the Backbone of the World." And that points again to the difficulty of placing sensitive locations off-limits to energy development: while the concept of wilderness can be defined by federal statute, sacredness can’t be, any more than beauty. The Blackfeet can breathe easy about drilling within the boundaries of Glacier; it’s a national park. But what about the Sweet Grass Hills, a line of three unassuming buttes up near the Canadian line, which are also considered sacred? No federal protection for them.

For a long time it was comforting for environmentalists to know that much of the Front is already off-limits as federally designated wilderness, national forest, and national park. Other public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management have well-established procedures for seeking permits, and the wholesale giveaway of such lands to the oil and gas industry by George W. Bush was mercifully turned back. But private lands are a different matter. Further adding to the dilemma for environmentalists are the new technologies now used in fracking -- particularly directional drilling. Oil and gas companies tout these as lowering their footprint on the surface of the land. But whether or not that’s true, there’s a catch: the technology also means that they can lease drilling rights on private lands -- and then, once the shaft has been sunk to the requisite four or five thousand feet, they can make a 90-degree turn that allows them to tap the oil and gas deposits that lie beneath contiguous federal lands. So the fracking of wilderness can now happen in principle even if the drill rigs are sitting just outside its formal boundaries.

What then are my environmentalist friends in Montana to do? It’s unlikely that all of these battles can be fought and won; they simply don’t have the resources. We all want to add more renewables to our energy mix. So do we let energy development, of both the clean and dirty kind, go ahead in places that we find ugly and boring, and block it in places that we find kind of pretty? Knowing that these concepts are undefinable, and that everyone will draw the line in a different place? I don’t begin to know how this dilemma can be resolved; all I know is that the question looms before us, and that the oil and gas and wind companies will not stand around waiting patiently while we grapple for an answer.

Back to homepage | View full site