Photograph by Raymond Meeks

Powder Keg

The gas industry has been busy in Wyoming's prairies and grasslands, building thousands of miles of roads and sinking more than 10,000 wells in the past three years. But in the Powder River basin, ranchers are joining environmentalists to try to still the drills.

By Keith Kloor

Ed Swartz does not seem like the kind of guy you would threaten with bodily harm. He has spent almost all of his 62 years in a windswept corner of northeastern Wyoming, herding cattle, baling hay, and building waterlines to keep his ranch from going dry. He still works as long as the daylight lasts, even after suffering a near-fatal heart attack in 1995. But shortly after his ranch started dying in 1999, he stood up on a bus full of state officials from Wyoming and Montana and started fuming about his dried-up meadows and polluted creekbeds. Most audiences would have sympathized with Swartz. But this particular bus carried coal-bed methane executives and various state officials, including the governors of Wyoming and Montana. They were touring drilling sites in the Powder River basin; the Wyoming officials wanted to impress their counterparts in neighboring Montana with how smoothly the booming development was going.

Ed Swartz's property, however, which sits in the coal-rich basin, has been inundated with coal-bed methane discharge water from drilling sites near his ranch, contaminating his creek and preventing him from irrigating his alfalfa, the cattle ranch's lifeline. On this day he just wanted to make sure everyone on the bus was aware of it. And that he was not the only rancher with this problem. John Kennedy, a local coal-bed methane operator, was furious. "You're a liar!" he yelled at Swartz, cutting him off. Swartz, a strapping, leathery, third-generation Wyomingite whose grandfather homesteaded the family ranch in 1904, kept talking, unperturbed. "I'm going to hurt you!" Kennedy warned. Swartz said to go ahead and try. Inflamed, Kennedy again thundered, "I'm going to hurt you!" But the blustery driller never left his seat. Finally, Montana's governor, Judy Martz, settled things down, so the tour could continue.

Sitting around his kitchen table, chain-smoking low-tar cigarettes, Swartz tells me the story over a pot of turbocharged coffee, a glinty grin on his face. Kennedy, I learn, has a reputation for harassing similarly aggrieved ranchers at public meetings and over the phone. Swartz, who has long been an active, bedrock Republican in what is a virtual one-party—Republican—state, is now considered a pariah for rocking the boat. "People think I'm just a rabble-rousing rancher around here," he says defiantly. That, undoubtedly, is because of the Clean Water Act lawsuit he has filed against Wyoming state officials and the drilling company (Denver-based Redstone Inc.) he asserts is responsible for the damages to his land.

Coal-bed methane development is a relatively new form of natural gas extraction that has exploded in the Powder River basin since 1997, with more than 10,000 gas wells already sunk on private and state lands. It is like mother's milk to state officials, because it produces both tax revenues and campaign contributions from the energy companies. "They are so oriented to the energy industry that they could give a red rat's ass about a rancher," Swartz bristles. "I'm as serious as I can be about that. There's not one of them that is concerned about a rancher around here."

The 8-million-acre Powder River basin straddles the Wyoming–Montana border, offering a snapshot of the quintessential Old West, with its rolling hills and prairies nestled between the Bighorn Mountains and the Black Hills, 100 miles to the east. Along this storied and bloodied frontier, Indian battles raged, range wars first erupted between homesteaders and cattle barons, and Buffalo Bill and Butch Cassidy sealed their myths. It is the place, many claim, where the American cowboy was born.

The Powder River region is also where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, a bare, reddish, lunarlike landscape that skips between parched, stumpy buttes, green meadows, and unspoiled streams. It is a vast, mixed ecosystem of grassland and sagebrush, where, in that timeless Darwinian race, prairie dogs burrow deep and antelope hurtle fast and high, coyotes and mountain lions quick on their heels. The Powder River—described by settlers as "a mile wide and an inch deep, too thin to plow and too thick to drink"—is a 375-mile tributary of the Yellowstone River. Plying its shallow, muddy waters are the globally imperiled sturgeon chub, the channel catfish, and 23 other native fish.

During the 20th century the long boom-and-bust cycles of strip mines and oilfields left their own indelible imprint on the landscape, in the form of sawed-off hilltops and abandoned "orphan" wells. Even so, ranchers and environmentalists have always taken solace that the deep and large gashes scarring the land were mostly confined to a few areas.

No longer. The latest boom to hit the Powder River basin has spread out in a chaotic patchwork, pockmarking the historic landscape with thousands of miles of powerlines, pipelines, roads, compressor stations, and wellheads. Methane is a natural gas found in the region's plentiful coal seams. Water pressure holds the gas in the coal; pumping the water out in large volumes releases the gas. The process also produces wastewater laced with sodium, calcium, and magnesium—too saline to be used for irrigation, too tainted to be dumped in waterways. So in a semi-arid region where water is precious, energy companies are forced to store the methane water in "containment" pits, from which it often runs into water wells and into the tributaries of the Powder River.

The resulting environmental damage in the Powder River basin has hit ranchers and the land equally hard. "It's so damn discouraging," Swartz tells me in a craggy voice tinged with resignation. "Everything I worked for, that my grandfather worked for, and that my son is working for is being wiped out." Over the years the family has endured many droughts (including the one the region is suffering today), its share of machinery breakdowns, and several diseases afflicting their cattle. But nothing compares with the poisonous runoff that is killing the ranch's vegetation. "They're [Redstone] using my place as a garbage dump," Swartz fumes.

About a year and a half ago, at the boom's peak, drillers were pumping 55 million gallons of water to the surface every day. Underground aquifers were being depleted and cottonwood trees flooded. The massive runoff of the methane-tainted water has become so alarming—polluting creeks and streams and altering natural river flows—that earlier this year the conservation group American Rivers named Wyoming's Powder River as one of America's Most Endangered Rivers for 2002. "There could be 139,000 coal-bed methane wells in the Powder River basin by the end of the decade," says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, referring to energy-industry and government estimates. "Despite this, federal and state agencies have yet to formulate an adequate plan for minimizing the environmental consequences of drilling in the Powder River basin."

And they weren't about to until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report last May, slamming the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to assess the fallout from coal-bed methane development. At the time, drillers were already having their way on Wyoming's private and public lands, owing to lax state and federal environmental safe-guards. They had just set their sights on a mother lode of rich coal-seam deposits on BLM lands in the Powder River region. Then, with the bureau poised to give the operators a quick go-ahead, the EPA's report stopped them in their tracks, throwing into doubt the development of gas wells on 8 million public acres in Wyoming. In particular, the EPA cited concerns about air quality from dust and compressor emissions, and the impact on wildlife and water quality. The EPA report forced the BLM to redo its environmental-impact statement on 51,000 new gas wells slated for development on federal lands.

The reassessment, scheduled to be released in January, stands to reverberate throughout the Rocky Mountain West, where a gold rush mentality has taken hold. Energy officials have called the area the "Persian Gulf of natural gas." Gas companies have already struck hard and fast in Colorado's San Juan basin; now they're waiting for the green light on federal lands to expand there and across Montana and Wyoming.

Moreover, coal-bed methane development in the West is the cornerstone of President Bush's proposed domestic energy plan, which claims the area has enough natural gas to supply the energy needs of the United States for seven years. "The region is enormously rich in minerals," Ray Thomasson, a Colorado-based energy consultant, told a recent Denver gathering of energy experts and industry officials. "We just have to find out where the sweet spots are."

Despite their proud bearing, Nancy and Robert Sorenson can't mask the sorrow and anguish in their voices as they describe what it's like to live in the first "sweet spot" of the coal-bed methane boom. Both natives of Wyoming, the Sorensons have spent the past 30 years—almost half their lives—on a 3,500-acre cattle ranch in the Powder River basin, 20 miles north of Ed Swartz's spread. They, too, have had methane-contaminated water run off onto their property, flooding their soil and boxwood elder trees.

The Sorensons have graciously invited me into their home for a lunch of stir-fried chicken and homemade nut bread and a discussion of their unwanted quandary. Robert is taciturn yet direct, and casts a sharp gaze behind his full mustache; Nancy has a warm, open smile but speaks softly and deliberately, always searching for the right words. Recently, rich coal seams have been discovered under their land. But since the Sorensons own only partial mineral rights, when the drillers came knocking, they had no power to turn them away. In Wyoming, as in most of the West, subsurface rights supersede surface rights, so unless a landowner owns both—few do—whoever owns the mineral rights under the land holds the trump card.

Though the Sorensons stand to collect royalties, they are agonizing over the repercussions. "I worry about our neighbors downstream, who will be hit hard by this," says Nancy, a retired schoolteacher and an active board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a grassroots group that has united ranchers and local environmentalists. She also worries about the fate of the wildlife she sees every day on her morning walks around the ranch, such as antelope, mule deer, and foxes. ("I've seen a mountain lion twice, which was quite a thrill!") Living on the land all their lives, the Sorensons have become attuned to its natural rhythms, mindful of even the subtlest changes in predator-prey relationships. Over the years the couple has watched, with admiration, as ecological forces exerted their own balance. "When the rabbits become too much of problem, the bobcats take care of it," says Nancy. But, she adds in a doleful whisper, "I hate to see what happens to all these animals once this drilling starts, because you are fragmenting their environment."

Overall, the Powder River basin is home to more than 157,000 mule deer, 108,000 pronghorn antelope, and almost 12,000 elk. Even the BLM admitted in its first—albeit inadequate—
environmental assessment that the proposed coal-bed methane development "may result in loss of viability of federal lands . . . and may result in trends toward federal listing" under the Endangered Species Act for 16 species, including the white-tailed prairie dog, the burrowing owl, and the Brewer's sparrow.

As clouds darken the early afternoon and a light, intermittent drizzle begins to fall, the Sorensons mourn the transformation—almost overnight—of their rural community into an industrial zone. "It's a total change of a way of life," says Robert, whose family homesteaded in the Powder River basin in 1881.

He's right. For two days I have zigzagged hundreds of miles west from the city of Gillette—the satellite home base of energy companies—to Sheridan, another energy outpost. In between antelope sightings, it seemed that for every 20 miles I rode along Highway 14-16, new dirt roads were being bulldozed in the rolling foothills for pipelines, and open pits were being dug for wastewater containment ponds. What's more, this was a quiet period, because the unseasonably wet, cold weather hampered drilling. In warmer temperatures, for instance, coal-bed methane operators use an atomizer to spray methane water at high pressure, so that most of it will evaporate—although the salt and minerals still coat the ground.

During construction of a particular site, it's not uncommon, the Sorensons say, to have a hundred trucks trundling in 24 hours a day. Once the wellheads are sunk and the compressor stations built alongside—sheltered in houselike structures—the noisy, whirring process of methane gas extraction runs all day and all night. "Imagine if you lived across the street from a power plant," says Robert. "That's what it's like for people that live near a coal-bed methane field." Some ranchers liken the sound to that of 747s taking off—constantly.

Yet as Nancy admits, somewhat awkwardly, not everyone in the community is put off by the development. Though Wyomingites are deeply proud of their ties to the land and the ranching tradition, it's not an easy life. "I'm aware of neighbors who welcomed this [the gas development] with open arms because they were so far at the end of their rope," she says. "And because this is going to keep them on the land a little while longer, I'm absolutely understanding of their position." Her voice trails off, a faraway look in her eyes. "You know," she continues, a few seconds later, "we've been able to make a living off this place, which is quite unusual. Robert has made some smart moves, and we've both worked hard, but we've also been lucky in that we haven't had a major illness. So I can't blame other people for how they feel."

Like Ed Swartz, the Sorensons direct their anger at state officials, who they believe have permitted the coal-bed methane operators to run roughshod over ranchers and the land. For their ranch, the Sorensons signed 13 separate lease deals, like pipeline and powerline rights-of-ways, with energy companies. "Not once did we have a choice," says Nancy. What's more, Wyoming, unlike neighboring Montana and most states, doesn't have laws mandating that proposed industrial development—such as gas extraction—on nonfederal lands be assessed beforehand for environmental impact.

Shortly after the widespread environmental damages became evident several years ago, the Sorensons, Ed Swartz, and many other ranchers met with their state representatives to plead for tighter regulations on the drilling and for a set of rancher rights—to no avail.

"They've all just been bought and sold," says Robert. "Really, they all have." (Nearly 70 percent of all campaign contributions to Wyoming's state legislators come from the oil and gas industry.) "They all know where the paychecks come from," Nancy chimes in. "There isn't anybody in local government that is going to fight this. And neither am I. We just need some tougher regulations."

The ranchers' biggest concern is the depletion of their underground aquifers. In Colorado, where coal-bed methane development has taken off in a number of areas, drillers are required by state law to clean the discharged methane water of all pollutants and "reinject" it into the ground. Not so in Wyoming. Drillers say that requirement would make their operations less cost-effective. Many ranchers, joining forces with the formidable Powder River Basin Resource Council, have also been petitioning state and federal lawmakers for a mandatory Surface Owner Agreement—which would allow landowners to have a say about where pipelines and roads are built. (The government broke its promise that powerlines would be buried and kept to minimum.) Above all, what pains the ranching community is the lack of adequate bonding—money the energy companies pay to cover land damages and reclamation. Just look around, Nancy says, at all the abandoned wells from previous booms.

Undoubtedly, history will repeat itself, she asserts, if energy companies aren't required to pony up much more than the paltry $25,000 bond they pay for unlimited wellheads on Wyoming's federal lands (it's $75,000 for state and private lands).

Given this history, I'm surprised to hear the Sorensons say they are not against coal-bed methane development in principle (and that goes for Ed Swartz and the other Powder River basin ranchers I spoke with). "No," Robert answers resolutely. "We just want to see it done right."

A few months after my trip to the Powder River basin last May, the bottom fell out of the natural gas market, dropping prices to less than a dollar for every thousand cubic feet, from a high of $12 two years earlier, a price that fueled the drilling frenzy. Some industry experts and plenty of environmentalists attribute the Powder River boom to the manipulation of energy prices in California by Enron and other energy companies. Whatever the reason, the plunging price has slowed development in the Powder River basin and given ranchers—and wildlife—some breathing room.

"We have a window of opportunity to get the problems addressed," says Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. "It's good we have this slowdown. Maybe now we can get better planning and development." Morrison cautions it could merely be a lull in a volatile energy market, and that in the meantime, drillers might use the depressed prices as an excuse to pay less money to repair damages to the land.

No matter the outcome, Ed Swartz, the Sorensons, and other Powder River ranchers under siege aren't counting on their politicians for help. In August, three months after the EPA released its critical report of the BLM's environmental assessment, Wyoming's governor, Jim Geringer, lambasted the EPA for its "aggressive and ill-informed approach" to coal-bed methane development in the Powder River region. And in September, perhaps to shore up their flagging spirits, Montana Governor Judy Martz told a roomful of oil and gas lobbyists that they were "the true environmentalists"—as opposed to, as one meeting attendee said, the "radical" critics of energy development.

After I heard both comments, I figured these officials had never seen Ed Swartz's polluted stream or had lunch with the Sorensons. "We are very environmentally conscious," Nancy told me during my visit, "and most ranchers we know are." Her tone was gentle but firm. "I'm not opposed to having development, but there should be some equilibrium."

It never occurred to me then, or months later, when Governor Martz and the gas-industry proponents made their barbs, that the Sorensons or Ed Swartz were "radicals." But I sure do know who the "true environmentalists" are in Wyoming.


The print version of this story includes more photographs by Raymond Meeks.

© 2002  NASI

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For more information, call the Powder River Basin Resource Council at 307-672-5809 or log on to www.powderriverbasin.org. You can also call or e-mail the Wyoming state office of the BLM at 307-775-6256; state_wyomail@blm.gov.

"It's so damn discouraging. everything I worked for, that my grandfather worked for, and that my son is working for is being wiped out."

Along this storied and bloodied frontier, Indian battles raged, range wars were fought, and Buffalo Bill and Butch Cassidy sealed their myths.

"Imagine if you lived across the street from a power plant. That's what it's like for people that live near a coal-bed methane field." Some ranchers liken the sound to that of 747s taking off—constantly.