Emily Martin and Kris Kimmel

The extraction of fossil fuel resources has been the cause of many tragedies for rural communities. Archaic land rights divide surface, mineral, and water rights, making it legal for landowners (who own only the surface), to be forcibly evicted to make room for coal mines or oil and gas wells. Wastewater from the operations then pollute the rivers and drinking water of the surrounding area, poisoning people, livestock, and crops, ruining the land for agriculture. The influx of new workers creates a boomtown phenomenon which leads to a higher need for municipal services--which are not funded because the outside population takes money out of the area. As the boomtown goes into a bust, it is left with added infrastructure that is no longer needed, poisoned land, and little money. Eastern Montana is a classic case study of negative effects of fossil fuel extraction.

Environmental Health

"You end up with surface owners who have wells and drills in their yards where companies are flaring, burning the natural gas and producing oil, who have no right to say, 'Could you please not burn natural gas next to my kitchen window? It’s making my kids sick'” (Svein).

Eastern Montana sits in the heart of multiple resource extraction projects, including the Bakken, Big Horn, and Williston Oil Basins, the Powder River Coal Basin, and various uranium mining sites. The city of Billings serves as a major thoroughfare for the shipping of these resources. Currently, Montana does not have setback requirements, meaning there are no specific regulations in place regarding the placement of extraction sites. This poses significant health concerns, specifically in regards to water. In southeastern Montana, coal operations use groundwater from local aquifers, which are needed for ranching and farming.

Similar risks are posed by hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) of bedrock for oil and gas. One well can be fracked a handful of times, and each fracking uses millions of gallons of water. In a region with thousands of wells, the quality of water being used is staggering, especially for a drought-stricken region. Wastewater associated with fracking is known as “saltwater,” and is saltier than ocean water and can poison whatever soil it comes in contact with, making the land unusable for agricultural practices. Once saltwater touches someone’s land, you never see it produce again. One spill ruins the livelihood of entire communities. The dumping of salty groundwater (which has been pumped out of the ground to access methane and natural gas) into rivers results in a crop yield drop of 40-60% for farmers along the Tongue River in 2011 (Newman).

Gases leaking through plumbing catches fire. (Credit:  Chris Voss )

Gases leaking through plumbing catches fire. (Credit: Chris Voss)

Fracking, whether for oil or gas, can leak flammable gas and toxic chemicals into the water supply. Videos of homeowners setting their tap water on fire have gone viral; chemicals used in fracking still remain undisclosed to the public thanks to the “Halliburton Loophole,” which stripped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to regulate fracking practices. Leaks are difficult to detect as well, sometimes going unnoticed for weeks, and even if the public were warned, they are not informed about the chemicals they may be exposed to. Clean up for such a spill costs upwards of $2.5 million (Gottesdiener).  

One farm located in the Bakken Oil Shale Basin tested positive for high levels of benzene, chloroform, butane and others in the air; sulfates, chromium, selenium and others in the water; and arsenic and acetone in readouts’ blood. Those living nearby had lung and kidney pain, bloody urine, migraines, and a burning sensation in the nostrils. As for the various animals living on the farm, dust pneumonia killed five cows, four cats, and two dogs. Cattle lost 60-80 pounds in one week and had swollen, infected legs, and tail loss. Milk production halted entirely (Katz).

Surface Rights vs Mineral Rights

"If I am the private owner, I own the coal underneath your farm or your house and I want to come in and strip-mine it, I have a legal right to do so. You can’t say, 'But I live there!' You can’t do that. The mineral owner has the right to say, 'Sorry but you’re gonna have to find a new place to live,' and that’s true for folks who live over state coal" (Newman).

In the American West, surface, mineral, and water rights are "severed" from surface ownership. This division between forms of property is a remnant of the Homestead Act, which encouraged the settlers to move west. While the government was basically giving away land, it wanted to retain everything of value, and so the federal government remained the largest mineral owner. Over the years, the government sold and traded away some of the rights so that today mineral rights are owned by a checkerboard mix of federal, state, and private ownership. These mineral rights trump surface rights, and so it is legal to forcibly evict a homeowner under most access agreements pertaining to mineral rights. Companies have to pay homeowners “fair market value” for the land they take, but prices are stacked in favor of the developing company, and these agreements are often reached with residents subjected to relative duress. Most ranchers and farmers do not want to cash in the quality of their water or their home for a quick buck, no matter how much money is being offered (Savage).

Farmers have no choice but to allow whoever owns the mineral rights beneath their land to extract whatever resources are available there. (Credit:  Laura Gottesdiener )

Farmers have no choice but to allow whoever owns the mineral rights beneath their land to extract whatever resources are available there. (Credit: Laura Gottesdiener)

Economic Shifts

Shadow boomtown workers come to the area only to work a job for a company capitalizing on a temporary resource, and do not benefit the local economy in a lasting way. Traveling workers take money out of a local economy and typically send it to their permanent home. These workers (and the resources they extracted) are gone within years or months. The sudden growth in population puts pressure on municipal infrastructure such as buildings, sewage, police force, and more (See Boomtown Social Effects). A farmer in Montana sometimes has to wait months to get a tractor repaired. Long waiting periods for services like electricity, plumbing, etc. are common in rural communities after a population boom. The companies responsible for this increased need do nothing to relieve it. They are given a “tax holiday,” meaning they do not pay taxes for the first 18 months when they are most productive. Once they do start paying taxes, almost all of it goes to counties and the state, not to municipalities. Residents are therefore left to pay for the needs of the shadow population out of their own pocket, and continue to pay for it after they leave in order to maintain the expensive and now unnecessary infrastructure (Newman).

Landowners must continue to pay taxes on their barren fields. (Credit:  Laura Gottesdeiner )

Landowners must continue to pay taxes on their barren fields. (Credit: Laura Gottesdeiner)

Employment and taxes are another major downfall for rural communities in a boom-and-bust region. Politicians and corporations that are in favor of bringing resource development into a community argue that local economic growth makes the risks worthwhile. However, the jobs being offered by such companies require training which most residents, especially farmers, do not have. Almost none of the new jobs created in a region are being filled by actual residents of that region, especially in a boom period when trained but unemployed workers are readily available. 

Taking Action

The lack of oil and gas regulations involved with such dangerous and environmentally unsound practices can be linked back to 1970s legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. These bills were instrumental in the environmental movement and helped place strict regulations on coal mining, but left oil and gas regulation to the states. Montana’s regulations on wells and well safety are still lower than the American Petroleum Institute’s guidelines for best practices. There are industry standards, but no companies in Montana are required to come close to meeting them. Many regulators work, or used to work, for certain industries with the power to make corporate contributions for political campaigns. Regulators which now have a financial incentive, perhaps even a responsibility, to be lax on regulations (Newman).

The Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) is working on pushing Montana’s State Board of Oil and Gas Regulator to implement standards for setbacks so that companies cannot drill directly next to someone’s home. NPRC is also working with the State Department of Environmental Quality to draft rules regarding the disposal of radioactive oil, which is currently dealt with like household waste in Montana. There have been some victories on a smaller scale, with companies walking away from certain projects or significantly amending those projects due to community concern.

Desperation for oil has made North Dakota a target for fracking. Outdated and unjust property laws have made it possible for the bottom line- profit- to be pursued despite catastrophic effects environmental and economic health of the targeted area. With reckless disregard to the health of the people living there and the future of people living anywhere. The only solution within sight is stricter regulations of this practice, if not an outright ban. 



Gottesdiener, L. (2014, September 6). In shadow of oil boom, North Dakota farmers fight contamination. Aljazeera America.

Kats, D. (2014, May 13). A personal story: Steve and Jacki Schilke, Williston Basin North Dakota. Preserve The Beartooth Front.

Newman, S. (2015, December 1). Personal Interview by Emily Martin

Savage, L. (2014, Jan. 27). The untold story of Keystone. Maclean’s.