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
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-partyRepublicanstate,
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 WyomingMontana
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 Riverdescribed
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 magnesiumtoo 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 alarmingpolluting creeks
and streams and altering natural river flowsthat 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
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 yearsalmost
half their liveson 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
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
bothfew dowhoever 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 firstalbeit inadequate
As clouds darken the early afternoon and a light, intermittent drizzle
begins to fall, the Sorensons mourn the transformationalmost overnightof
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 Gillettethe satellite home base of energy companiesto
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 evaporatealthough 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 alongsidesheltered
in houselike structuresthe 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 offconstantly.
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 developmentsuch
as gas extractionon nonfederal lands be assessed beforehand for
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 rightsto 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 Agreementwhich 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 bondingmoney 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 ranchersand wildlifesome
"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.
version of this story includes more photographs by Raymond Meeks.