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Drilling the West
JULY 2005
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Drilling the West @ National Geographic Magazine
By John G. Mitchell
Photographs by Joel Sartore

Demand for natural gas and the resulting land-use pressures are pitting America's Old West against the New.


There are a number of places in the Rocky Mountains today where you will find the Old West grinding against the New, and Pinedale, Wyoming, is surely one of them. A quiet, Main Street sort of town (population 1,500) tucked behind a mesa in the sagebrush valley of the upper Green River, Pinedale is known as the home of the Museum of the Mountain Man. And this stretch of the Green is famous as the site of the riotous rendezvous that drew those buckskinned adventurers here in the waning summers of the fur trade. From hills roundabout you can see in the east the snow-dusted peaks of the Wind River Range, and the faraway Wyoming Range to westward.

This is vintage Old West scenery you're looking at. Soak it up while there's still a chance, for that other West, the New West of pipelines, thumper trucks, and drilling rigs, sits up there on the mesa and southward beyond it. To take its full measure, this West is best observed not on the ground but from the window of a single-engine plane, circling what some people regard as an environmental killing field, while others embrace it as one small but crucial platform on the path to our nation's energy independence.

Airborne, on intercom, I have Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition and Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, our pilot out of Aspen, Colorado. Over the years Gordon has logged hundreds of thousands of air miles giving lawmakers and journalists the bird's-eye view of land-use battlegrounds. Now, near the Pinedale mesa's north end, Gordon is circling a place called Trappers Point, a bluff dropping off to the Green River. A scant half mile of open country is all that separates the point from a rural subdivision hugging the highway to Jackson.

"There's the bottleneck," Baker is saying. "That's one of the places the pronghorn and mule deer have to squeeze through on their migration from summer range in Teton National Park into the upper Green."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls the rights to natural gas around Trappers Point, and it is uncertain when, or whether, the agency will lease it for energy development. But even if the BLM refrains from leasing the point, the migrating ungulates—sometimes numbering in the thousands—face a daunting challenge as they press farther south into their winter range. It happens that the Pinedale mesa not only sits athwart the migration corridor but also overlies the Pinedale anticline, a sandstone formation containing trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Seven hundred wells have already been approved on the mesa, and 230 are now in production. The gas fields are laced with about a hundred miles of access roads and pipelines. And as we fly south beyond the mesa, we can see the more tightly spaced well pads of the Jonah field, with 500 more wells in place and the BLM proposing to increase that number by 3,100.

"This is a national sacrifice area," Baker says over the intercom. I had heard it described from a different perspective just the day before at the Pinedale office of the BLM: "In terms of productivity, there are few onshore gas fields equal to the Jonah in the lower forty-eight," said Prill Mecham, the BLM field manager.

Heading back to the airstrip at Pinedale, Gordon says, "This is just the tip of it. I can fly one hour in practically any direction in the Rocky Mountains and look down and see some sign of oil and gas development. They're going for it almost everywhere."

Gordon's perception of "almost everywhere" is not quite the same as that of the energy industry or the U.S. Geological Survey, the official arbiter of where our fossil fuel riches lie. For extracting natural gas, the Survey has identified five promising regions in the Rocky Mountains, including Wyoming's Greater Green River Basin. They range across 60 million acres managed by the federal government, plus millions of acres of state and private land, from New Mexico north to Montana. Within those five regions the federal lands alone are said to contain enough "technically recoverable" gas to supply current U.S. demand for six years.

That bit of industry jargon is an important qualifier, for it means that while the technology exists to get the gas out of the ground, actually doing so may be prohibitively expensive. What's more, drilling advocates and their opponents still debate exactly how much of this gas might be available for development. The Bush Administration's 2001 National Energy Policy report claimed that about 40 percent of natural gas resources on federal land in the Rocky Mountain region is off-limits due to land-use restrictions or environmental safeguards. Yet opponents cite a 2003 joint study by the Interior, Energy, and Agriculture Departments that found only 12 percent of the resource unavailable for leasing. Or, as some would sum up the situation, 88 percent is up for grabs.

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