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Drilling the West
JULY 2005
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Drilling the West

By John G. Mitchell
Photographs by Joel Sartore

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Another issue: On BLM land nationwide, drillers are working fewer than half the leases they already hold. A study by the Wilderness Society, for example, estimates that of the 45,836 oil and gas leases supervised by the BLM, more than half were not producing as of last February. So what has been fueling the drive to poke new holes into the well-punctured crown of our continent when there already appears to be a surfeit of untapped leases? Some energy analysts attribute it to the slow pace of domestic production in recent years, which, coupled with increased demand, pushed up the price of natural gas. Then, of course, there is the environmental advantage that gas, which burns cleaner than coal, holds over its grimy fossil cousin.

And finally there was and is the Bush-Cheney energy plan, drafted behind closed doors by a vice president and other insiders with private-sector résumés reeking of petroleum. Out of this plan emerged the White House Task Force on Energy Project Streamlining, conceived as a kind of ombudsman to sort out the differences between an impatient industry and red-taped federal agencies, but which in practice functioned as a complaint desk for companies seeking faster access to gas fields and other resources. BLM managers throughout the Rockies received their marching orders in August 2003 when the agency issued a directive urging them to remove unnecessary restrictions on energy development and expedite the processing of drilling applications. This, BLM director Kathleen Clarke said, "will further our agency's efforts to ensure a reliable supply of affordable energy, as called for by the President."

It was the unfolding of these plans and policies, and the outcry against them—often by unlikely coalitions of ranchers, hunters, outfitters, and environmental activists—that drew me last year to western battlegrounds where massive drilling threatens to change dramatically the character of unspoiled lands.

The Powder River Basin
Throughout the Rocky Mountain region, the energy industry is mostly producing two kinds of natural gas: tight sands gas, found in sandstone formations, and coal bed methane (CBM), trapped in seams of coal. The Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana is methane country. But while the cost of drilling to reach CBM is less expensive than tapping deeper sandstone formations elsewhere, the cost of extracting it can be pricey. To release and collect the gas, drillers must first pump out the groundwater that holds the gas under pressure within the coal seams. Then the operator has to dispose of the water, often tainted with elevated levels of salinity.

As we toured some of the gas fields near Sheridan, Wyoming, Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a group that represents farmers, ranchers, and other rural residents, explained why the CBM wastewater has become such a problem. "For one thing," she said, "the sheer quantity is staggering. We're talking billions of gallons of water. On these clay soils here, you can't safely irrigate with it. The salinity has a negative effect on crops and native vegetation." Some in the gas industry and a few irrigators, however, treat the wastewater to make it usable.

A day earlier I had dropped by the BLM office in Buffalo, Wyoming, which oversees much of the state's Powder River Basin, and spoken with Richard Zander, associate field manager. Last year this office, with more than half its staff of 80 assigned to minerals management, received a special commendation from Washington for issuing more new drilling permits than any other BLM office in the country. Some 18,000 wells are in place now, and 14,000 of them are producing about a billion cubic feet of gas daily. Another 35,000 wells are projected over the next six years.

Zander conceded there is an issue with the water and how to get rid of it. Much of it goes into evaporation pits or reservoirs, and occasionally, I was told by Morrison and others, there have been overflows into nearby watercourses, including the Tongue River. But against that downside, Zander cited benefits accruing to landowners. Most of the mineral rights in the basin are held by the BLM, the state, or individuals other than the residential and ranching folks who "own" the surface. Zander said "nuisance fees" are paid to the surface owners by most energy companies, as much as $2,000 for the first year of the life of a well pad, and $1,000 a year thereafter, plus smaller sums for road and pipeline access. "For a large rancher, that could add up to $30,000 a year—and that's just gravy."

But there's another kind of gravy in Powder River country. It is the sludge that can come out of a homeowner's tap when CBM drillers de-water the aquifer feeding that homeowner's well and cistern. Consider the case of Allison and Richard Cole, who believed they had found their American dream in a comfortable five-bedroom house on high, open, rolling prairie ten miles north of Sheridan. "The wild, wonderful West just opened up to us," said Allison Cole. But soon their home and those of five other families were sitting within a horseshoe of two dozen CBM wells pumping methane and water from a formation known as the Anderson coal seam.

"We lost our water in April 2003," Allison Cole told me. "By August 2004, five other houses here had lost their water too. The drilling company, J.M. Huber Corporation, told us, 'The reason you have no water is that your well pump burned out.' And I said, 'Yeah? And the reason the pump burned out is because it had no water.'"

"It takes away the joy of living out here on the prairie," said Richard Cole. "We'd just like to get out of here now." And Allison added: "But we can't even put the house on the market. Who wants to buy a house without running water?"

A Huber spokesman said there is "no evidence" that the well failures have been caused by drilling activities. He cited other possible factors such as the region's lengthy drought and increasing residential development in the area. As part of what it calls its "Good Neighbor" policy, Huber refills the Coles' and other cisterns weekly with trucked-in water, and it has proposed constructing a replacement water supply system for all the affected landowners.

The Front
By most accounts, nothing can match Montana's Rocky Mountain Front for its capacity to inspire awe—for the striking visual quality of its primitive landscapes, for the biological integrity of its layered habitats, and for its ark-like concentration of charismatic critters. From the edge of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on the north, the escarpment of the Front sweeps south a hundred miles, past the Badger–Two Medicine wildlands held sacred by the Blackfeet; past the eastern spires of the Great Bear, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas; past wildlife refuges and natural areas administered by the Forest Service, the BLM, or the state. This is what the Blackfeet call "the backbone of the world." Westward of the high-plains hamlets of Augusta, Choteau, and Dupuyer, grasslands roll out to collide with ponderosa foothills and the mountain battlements that loom above them. There are grizzlies here. There are black bears and cougars and wolves. There are moose, elk, mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, lynx, wolverines, eagles, hawks, owls. But underlying these wild places and wild species are scores of inactive oil and gas leases. Some of these leases, though currently on hold by the BLM, could be opened for production as early as 2008, should the Bush Administration decide to do what it was ready to do, but didn't, just a few years earlier.

On the deck of a ranch house west of Dupuyer, with the blue-gray wall of the Front rising in the distance, I spent part of a morning talking with rancher Karl Rappold—his eyes reflecting that high-plains squint that seems to come with the territory, a full, thick mustache not quite muffling the passion in his voice as he spoke of this ranch that his grandfather first homesteaded in 1882.

"I'm just the caretaker here," he said, sweeping his arm over the plains rolling toward a rumpled mountain called Old Man of the Hills. The ranch now spreads over 7,000 acres, but Rappold leases 6,000 more from neighboring landowners. One section reaches right up the Front to touch the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. With such a spread, you'd think a cattleman might be running a herd of several thousand head. Rappold runs 350 Angus. "Got to leave some feed for the deer and the elk," he said. "And the grizzlies. They come down here too. We've seen two big boar grizzlies, thousand pounds each one of them. Those big old devils been wild and free all their lives, and they're going to stay that way. This is their last stand. Right here." To help assure that, Rappold—much to the dismay of some other ranchers roundabout—has placed some of his land under conservation easements held by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service.

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