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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Recovering From Wyoming’s Energy Bender by Alexandra Fuller, and see also Terry Tempest Williams

by Alexandra Fuller, New York Times, April 20, 2008

FOR all its Old West mythology, Wyoming is and always will be a mining state, more roughneck than cowboy. Frankly, in a land of long winters and high winds, there aren’t a lot of other economic choices. And a powerful oil lobby reminds us with Orwellian regularity that we owe everything to oil and gas taxes, bullying those who disagree. (In February, a committee of the Wyoming Legislature rejected a spending increase for the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources after institute scientists dared to raise concerns about water produced in coal-bed methane wells.) Even so, the oilier side of our nature has never threatened to unhorse the cowboy entirely, not even now, when the pressure to develop every last seam of energy is end-of-administration intense.

Since 1996, oil and gas companies have leased from the federal government the mineral rights to nearly 27 million acres of land in the Rocky Mountain West, and Wyoming has shouldered the greatest share of that development. In the last decade, oil companies have leased a fifth to a quarter of the state’s land — 15.5 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management, as well of hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest and private land. If Wyoming were a country, it would be one of the largest coal-producing nations in the world, and its output of natural gas is among the greatest in American history. The argument has never been that we shouldn’t provide energy. But is that all we’re good for? And what, if anything, should we leave for future generations? These are global questions posed on a local level.

During his second term, President Bill Clinton, under pressure from a Republican Congress, leased out just as much of Wyoming’s land as the current administration has to date. The difference was that the Clinton administration enforced laws encouraging the Bureau of Land Management to “manage, protect and improve” our public lands while allowing for other values like recreation, grazing and wildlife habitat. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has lifted every possible impediment to industry.

For example, oil and gas companies are exempt from provisions of the Clean Water Act that require construction activities to reduce polluted runoff as well as from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act that regulate underground injection of chemicals. The industry is also generously permitted to drill on critical wildlife winter range (close to 90 percent of all their requests to drill on winter range have been granted). Oil rigs are drilling for natural gas on the banks of the New Fork River (the headwaters of the Colorado) and in the foothills of the Wyoming Range. Well sites in many parts of the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are so closely spaced that, with roads, gas pipelines and compressor stations, the development is continuous.

Meantime, drug treatment centers and domestic abuse shelters across the state have declared themselves overwhelmed and, in spite of what the oil companies keep telling us, we’re far from happy. Wyoming has the uneasy distinction of having one of the country’s highest suicide rates. We top the national death toll on the job with 16.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Wyoming is responsible for by far the highest percentage of deaths on the job in the interior West’s oil and gas industry. At public meetings organized by the Bureau of Land Management to announce the development of Wyoming’s public lands, oil company executives initially argued to a largely receptive audience that a new boom would be good for the state’s economy. Lately, executives have been telling increasingly unhappy communities that domestic drilling is our moral duty, an alternative to sending more soldiers to war. They imply that anything less than full support for the oil companies is un-American. But a bumper sticker on a pick-up truck hints at the truth: “The war is over. Halliburton won.”

Meanwhile, cattle and sheep ranchers and hunting and tourist guides have found themselves wondering what has happened to their Wyoming. Wildlife suffers as oil leases overlap with habitat: 14.1 million acres of sage grouse habitat, 3.2 million acres of pronghorn winter habitat, 2.9 million acres of mule deer winter habitat and 1.1 million acres of elk winter habitat. Even most of the state’s wild horse herd management areas (the only Wyoming lands on which wild horses may legally roam) are destined for oil development.

Eighty-five water wells in the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have recently tested positive for hydrocarbons, indicating that toxic chemicals from drilling have leaked into the water table. Air pollution in the same area was so great this winter that vulnerable residents were warned not to venture outside. Oil companies argued that strong winds would rectify the problem.

They were right to predict a wind of change, but it came in the form of an unprecedented experiment in the art of listening. In the last few months, Terry Tempest Williams, a writer in residence at the University of Wyoming, has taken her students on the road to conduct what she calls “weather reports” in small communities. Addressing packed rooms, Ms. Williams turns the microphone over to the people of Wyoming — a stoical populace whose habitual stance against something they don’t like is a tight lip. Astonishingly, they have opened up, voicing their concerns over the rapidity and scale of the oil and gas development.

“One day, I fear I will wake up and all that will be left of Wyoming is a hole in the ground,” one resident of the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem said.

Oil executives have pushed back. One oilman, State Senator Kit Jennings, took the microphone in Casper and declared that Ms. Williams had demonized the oil companies. He rejected her contention in a local newspaper article that the energy boom had helped drive up the use of crystal methamphetamine in the region and announced that he had demanded that she be fired from the university for her criticism of the industry.

Oil and gas are accustomed to dominating the debate. But Ms. Williams’s forums have created an opportunity for grass-roots rebuttal. Residents, who have so far been cowed by the enormous tax contributions that energy companies make to the state’s coffers, are upholding values not counted in dollars. “My hope is that with our backs against the wall we will finally speak up,” another weather reports participant said.

Maybe Wyomingites, justifiably proud of their roughneck heritage and anxious to keep the oil field work, have realized that this boom isn’t going away soon, and they’d like a little of Wyoming left when the oil companies move back to Texas. “We’re Mother Nature’s bodyguards,” a billboard sponsored by Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range warns. “And yes, we are heavily armed.”

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