Roads and well-drilling pads etched from the sagebrush now stretch to the horizon in ghostly cul-de-sacs. A decade ago this wind-swept swath of country was largely untouched by...
PINEDALE, Wyoming Roads and well-drilling pads etched from the sagebrush now stretch to the horizon in ghostly cul-de-sacs.
A decade ago this wind-swept swath of country was largely untouched by humans. Today, nearly 500 natural-gas wells dot the Green River Valley, and the Bush administration has called for up to 3,100.
The White House failed in two attempts to persuade Congress to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But it helped choreograph an energy boom that is transforming the Rocky Mountains into the country’s newest energy frontier.
In a region of Wyoming so breathtakingly vast its 5,000 square miles don’t warrant a single stoplight, the lightning clip of exploration has helped make Sublette County the state’s second-richest, helping to fuel growth so intense that companies resort to packing their workers into freshly built motel rooms.
And that’s just in one county in one state.
From Montana to New Mexico, extraction of natural gas, coal and coal-bed methane is reaching levels unmatched since the early 1980s, sparking environmental disputes and creating new pockets of wealth. Just the number of new oil and natural-gas drilling permits yearly on federal lands under President Bush is 60 percent higher than it was under President Clinton.
And Clinton had opened more federal land to exploration than his predecessor, George H. W. Bush.
The transition is a testament to a Bush White House so committed to energy development that removing obstacles to drilling has become one of its signature natural-resource achievements.
Within days of taking office, Bush, the former owner of an oil-drilling company, and Vice President Dick Cheney, the ex-chairman of Halliburton, a global energy-services corporation, set a determined course to revamp how and where the country gets some of the juice it needs to power homes and businesses.
From Cabinet-level directives to agency memos to the actions of field bureaucrats, the White House adopted a pattern it would repeat throughout Bush’s term: It reconfigured the landscape by changing how it administers rules.
“What they’ve done, successfully, over the last 3-1/2 years is embed, in obscure documents, some pretty dramatic changes in direction,” said Dave Alberswerth, a former Clinton adviser and now a lobbyist for The Wilderness Society. “They haven’t changed any statutes. They haven’t changed any regulations. But they’ve changed a whole lot of practices and policies without any real public scrutiny.”
It’s not that Bush didn’t score congressional victories on environmental issues. He passed bipartisan measures to speed cleanup of hazardous-waste sites and log more trees to prevent forest fires. But when Congress rejected his overhaul of air-pollution rules dubbed “Clear Skies” he moved to overhaul them himself.
“As it appeared Congress was not going to act as promptly as the president was interested in, we moved forward with a regulatory approach,” said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Once in office, he attacked Clinton-era proposals to create national monuments and tried to open 58 million acres Clinton had closed to road building, logging and drilling.
As the administration pushed deeper into areas long closed to industry places popular with hunters or snowmobilers or artifact collectors, climbers, bikers or horse packers it ignited environmental battles across the West.
In Montana, the Forest Service is reconsidering a 7-year-old drilling ban set up to protect grizzly bears and wildlife southeast of Glacier National Park, lush country where granite peaks run into prairie.
In Utah, the administration sold mineral leases near Desolation Canyon a popular backpacking area the Clinton administration had earmarked as potential wilderness.
In Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned gas leases near the visitor’s center at Dinosaur National Monument, a fishing and river-rafting hotspot that sees nearly 300,000 visitors a year.
The race for energy
Perhaps no place is the pursuit of energy more visible than in the country’s least-populated state.
Two hours south of Grand Teton National Park, natural-gas wells are being punched at such a clip there’s a shortage of drill rigs to do the work.
Across the state on windswept rangeland near the Montana border, the Bush administration plans to quadruple the number of wells from 12,000 to 51,000 that draw odorless coal-bed methane, a form of natural gas, from underground coal seams.
And Wyoming companies that supply the bulk of the nation’s cleaner-burning low-sulfur coal expect to double production by 2020, tripling surface mining to 17,000 acres.
What Bush sees in Wyoming is a stockpile of resources to meet surging demand.
U.S. natural-gas consumption alone is expected to increase 40 percent by 2015, and domestic oil production is the lowest it has been in 30 years. In the 1970s, when Bush owned Arbusto, an oil-drilling company in Midland, Texas, the Lone Star State was still one of the planet’s top 10 oil-producing regions.
Today, Texas doesn’t produce enough oil to power Texas.
But what Bush’s critics see is a willingness to risk despoiling pristine areas sometimes to go after relatively small supplies of energy resources.
Conflict is mounting even in Wyoming, a state so defined by energy that drilling royalties helped create a $1 billion state-budget surplus during a recession.
Coal-bed methane wells draw hundreds of gallons of salt-tainted water each day as a byproduct, which is disposed of in lined ponds or sprayed on the ground. Some northeast Wyoming ranchers who worry that the alkaline water could foul crops have teamed up with environmentalists. Others fear draining so much water from underground aquifers could ultimately hurt a region struggling with drought.
This summer, a report by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the state agency that manages everything from deer to trout for hunters and anglers, was blunt about the risks: “Impending, large-scale development of these domestic energy reserves is placing sagebrush communities and wildlife at risk.”
Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, took the rare step in June of protesting the federal government’s sale of oil and gas leases. He called it a threat to wildlife and “contrary to the goal of deliberate and responsible development.”
The BLM sold the leases anyway.
Much of this boom is the result of technology that helps energy companies retrieve hard-to-get resources. But the pace and scale reflect Bush’s influence.
Bush and Cheney took office at the height of California’s energy crisis and within weeks were pushing to open up the West, where estimates show enough gas to supply the country for several years.
They cited a 1999 report by a federal advisory group that concluded 40 percent of the Rockies’ natural-gas reserves were beneath lands where drilling was off-limits or restricted. They discounted other studies that suggested just the opposite: that all but a fraction of the gas could be retrieved without opening new lands.
“Natural-gas demand has increased because it is a cleaner-burning fuel, and you have to get that supply from somewhere,” Norton said. “We’re just trying to eliminate some bureaucratic delays in our processes.”
Immediately after Cheney’s report, Bush issued two executive orders to federal agencies: Speed up energy-related permits, and before taking any action such as creating a wilderness area that might hurt energy exploration, make sure to first consider an alternative.
“What they were complaining about was process gridlock, and that is what we try to address as a matter of good government,” Connaughton said.
Inside the BLM, the mandate was clear. The Buffalo, Wyo., field office was told to double the number of coal-bed methane permits it issued each year to 3,000. One internal bulletin in Utah reminded the staff that when a request to drill or lease “comes in the door, that this work is their No. 1 priority.” Another in Wyoming urged staff members to ignore Clinton-era memos calling for a review of lands in the Red Desert for designation as wilderness.
Damage and dollars
A year ago, BLM Director Kathleen Clarke ordered workers in the field to reduce or eliminate environmental “constraints” that could delay or halt energy-related projects.
Trapped between the Wind Rivers, Gros Ventre and Wyoming mountain ranges, the upper Green River Basin is a desolate, treeless expanse twice the elevation of Snoqualmie Pass.
It’s a sweet spot in the mineral-reach region that runs from Canada to Mexico. There’s enough natural gas here, some think, to supply the country for nearly a year.
In the lower valley, a 30,000-acre field known as Jonah is already slated for 3,100 wells. At a newer 200,000-acre field a few miles to the north, the government is expected to call for more than twice that many.
But this arid valley is also a place where mule deer and pronghorn antelope come yearly to escape killer mountain snows. The 342-mile round-trip journey is the continent’s longest remaining wildlife migration outside Alaska’s Arctic.
The valley also is a breeding ground for some of the West’s largest populations of sage grouse, which are in such decline they’re candidates for Endangered Species Act protections.
On a drizzly summer day, Ron Hogan, a manager with Questar energy company, drove to a mesa overlooking Pinedale, a quiet cow town. Behind him a drilling rig was boring out the latest of nearly 80 natural-gas wells.
As these mountain ranges collided through history, they left gas-filled deposits like sandbars in a river. Extracting the deposits from these 14,000-foot-deep reservoirs requires the perfect mix of chemicals, which are injected into and fracture the rock, releasing the gas. “It’s like we’re trying to hunt in a giant bowl of potato chips,” Hogan said.
This place just outside Pinedale and the nearby Jonah Field together make up one of the largest gas finds in years. Although discovered in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Jonah was really tapped.
In 1997 Canadian oil company Ultra Petroleum and energy-services giant Halliburton, then run by Cheney, used new technology at Jonah to extract the gas. The race for Green River Valley gas was on.
The wealth surging into this county is second only to the dollars pouring into Jackson Hole, a glitzy recreation hotspot. Construction has exploded. Mineral receipts are helping pay for a 10,000-square-foot senior center an ornate structure for a town of less than 1,500.
“The gas is here, and we need it,” said Pinedale Mayor Rose Skinner. “We just have to do it right.”
Josh Laucirica of Salt Lake City said his $19-an-hour job on these rigs doubled the wages he was earning as a security guard. His buddy Tyler Brereton of Provo, Utah, left a construction job for one with insurance, a 401(k) and the possibility of travel.
“Twenty years, and I can retire a young man,” Laucirica said.
Statewide, Wyoming is profiting so much from energy that the state Legislature this year agreed to a $513 million capital-construction plan for new schools, state facilities and prisons. It also earmarked $40 million to boost pay for state employees.
But others fear potential downsides to the energy rush. On a hot summer day, Rusty Kaiser, a University of Wyoming graduate student, carted an antenna across the gas fields to track radio-collared sage grouse. He’s part of a team studying whether the growing number of gas rigs is driving the birds away and hastening their decline. It’s too soon to tell, he said.
The tempo also concerns Kim Berger, a biologist who, along with her husband, Joel, is working with federal agencies to understand the decline of pronghorn antelope in Grand Teton National Park north of the valley.
She recently picked her way through park underbrush carrying a net she later used to snare a 4-hour-old antelope, which she weighed, fitted with a radio collar and released.
The Cowboy State holds roughly as many antelope as people about a half-million but only a few hundred summer in the park. When thousands of animals head south in winter to the Green River plain, they squeeze through Trapper’s Point a quarter-mile-wide bottleneck between buttes and rivers just north of where Questar and others are drilling.
Pronghorn are susceptible to minute changes in landscape. While deer typically vault fences, even low-slung barbed wire can stop a pronghorn. Plummeting populations are likely the result of ecosystem changes that let more fawns fall victim to wolves or coyotes. But the antelope are so fragile, Berger fears gas wells could speed the decline.
“You can’t develop something that quickly and not expect unforeseen consequences,” she said.
That’s why early development plans under Clinton had strict seasonal no-drilling restrictions rules that forced companies to steer clear of rivers, sage-grouse strutting grounds and wildlife ranges when animals are at their weakest.
“Roads, development, drill rigs can all fracture habitat, which is why we have [seasonal] stipulations,” said Roger Bankert, acting field manager with the BLM in Pinedale.
It’s also why BLM withdrew 2,700 acres of leases in Trapper’s Point. “We said that’s off-limits,” Secretary Norton said. “We decided that one area was a critical wildlife corridor.”
But state game agents complained in a July report that seasonal drilling bans “are inconsistently applied” and “frequently modified or waived.” Of more than 150 requests last year by companies near Pinedale that applied for “exceptions” to those rules, the BLM granted waivers for more than 80 percent.
For example, Questar’s leases are in the heart of the crucial winter range, which means the firm’s initial proposal for up to 430 wells faces restrictions from November to April. So Hogan, Questar’s field man, proposed experimenting with “directional drilling” boring multiple holes from one location through the winter while conducting a wildlife study.
BLM agreed. This year Questar is seeking an expansion, arguing year-round drilling would let it leave the valley years sooner.
State Game and Fish biologist Steve Tessman, whose job is to protect Wyoming’s wildlife, said so few other regulations remain it makes no sense to allow winter drilling when animals are present.
But, he said, “the Pinedale district of the BLM has made a routine practice of granting exceptions.”
The sheer volume of activity has stirred up angst in this wind-swept corner of the Rockies, where conservative-leaning residents can’t picture where the energy boom will take them.
Kaiser, the graduate student, grew up in Pinedale, hunting deer on its plains and fishing its lakes and ponds. He scoffs at the notion that he’s some kind of “greenie.” He knows the gas workers well enough to shout their names as they drive by.
“As a researcher, I’m objective,” he said. “But as someone who lives in Wyoming, it’s all happening too fast.”
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.
Steve Ringman: email@example.com