Commentary: Drilling's darker side

Here's what the Election Year chant 'Drill, baby, drill' looks like up close.

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By Alexandra Fuller

Wyoming drilling rig
A Wyoming drilling rig seen from the air.
Photos
A slice of life in energy-rich Wyoming A slice of life in energy-rich Wyoming A slice of life in energy-rich Wyoming
The race for domestic oil and gas is changing the way of life of many towns here.

SUBLETTE COUNTY, Wyo. -- Across the United States, an increasingly panicked rush to extract every last drop of domestic oil and gas seems inevitable. Our already unimaginative energy policy and insatiable addiction seems to have been further reduced in election-year hysteria to bumper-sticker thoughtlessness - "Drill, baby, drill."

It's a slick line, but I live in Wyoming and here's what that bumper-sticker mantra looks like up close.

Roughly 26 million acres in the Rocky Mountain West have been leased by oil and gas companies in the last nine years. By far the greatest share of those leases has fallen to Wyoming. A quarter of the state's land surface has been leased -- more leases than anywhere else in the nation (including Alaska). And nowhere in the state has seen more drilling activity than Sublette County, a hitherto isolated community of 6,000 souls inclined toward the west-central part of Wyoming.

When the oil companies came courting some eight years ago, boasting of new technologies which would allow them access to previously untouchable minerals, most Sublette County residents welcomed them enthusiastically. Those citizens who cautioned moderation were routinely dismissed as "anti-development" or "greenie" (a powerful slur out west).

Sublette County sits in a high basin cradled by three ranges within the Rocky Mountains. Its waterways constitute the headwaters of the Colorado River. Its high plains play host to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wintering big game. Until a decade ago, the air and water were among the purest in the country.

"I've trapped, hunted and ridden horses over most of this land," says John Fandek, a local ranch hand and vocal opponent of this recent drilling activity. "If you'd told me, ten or fifteen years ago that development of this nature could happen here, in one of the last remaining wild areas in the lower forty-eight states, I wouldn't have believed it."

Oil companies initially proposed drilling wells 80 acres apart on the high plains so that critical wildlife habitat would remain relatively intact (a well pad covers seven acres). But over time, they have eroded that initial spacing down to as few as five acres so that some areas of the high plains are now solid industrial development. Moreover, in spite of initial promises to the community to be "good neighbors," they work with relative impunity.

Surprisingly few laws are in place to protect communities. For example, the oil companies don't have to comply with the Clean Water Act, neither are they at all restricted from drilling on previously protected critical big game winter range. Their drivers are exempt from Department of Transportation laws that limit the number of hours a driver may be behind the wheel. In Wyoming, oil rigs are classified as mobile units of pollution and are therefore exempt from laws that would otherwise regulate their collective pollution. Industry is even protected from revealing what chemicals go into their drilling fluid.

As a result of this lack of regulation, the air in Sublette County has become so polluted that regular toxic-air alerts warn vulnerable residents to stay indoors. Additionally, more than a dozen water wells on the high plains have recently tested positive for highly carcinogenic hydrocarbons. Cancer rates are now reported to be the highest in the state and, for many days of the year, a thick, brown stain of pollution hangs against the mountains, sometimes obliterating them from sight altogether.

Rapid development has also brought growing pains to the communities. Incidences of drug abuse, domestic violence and other crimes have escalated. A 2006 report approved by the Sublette County attorney begins, "Reported crimes and arrests have been increasing at an exponential rate since the year 2000 and have shown to be highly statistically correlated with gas and oil-field activity." The study shows the crime rate rising by 30 per cent from 2004 to 2005, a period when drilling activity increased by 15 percent.

"There has always been some energy development in Sublette County, but nothing like this. This is unsustainable, irresponsible, devastating," says Fandek who began working on the rigs here in the 1960s, back when limited technology ensured that drilling kept pace with the environment's ability to absorb the impacts.

"What is notable to me," says Fandek, "is that the more hysterically they drill, the more the price at the pump goes up. Millions of acres under lease in the last eight years and still the price climbs. When will people see, and politicians admit, that increased drilling does not translate to cheaper fuel?" Fandek soon quit the oil patch for a lifetime of work on various ranches. "The decision to leave the rigs didn't make me rich in the ordinary way," Fandek says. "But I've never counted wealth in ways that you can take to the bank."

The oil companies speak of the infrastructure and positive development that they have brought to the community and it is true that they have injected a lot of money into the county.

They have helped build a web of roads into the previously roadless high plains. They have contributed to a new drug-counseling center, a domestic-abuse shelter, a new sheriff's office, an indoor swimming pool and a new jail.

"None of which were badly needed before the boom in any case," Fandek points out. There are four new banks and a new car dealership in town. For the first time in their history, Sublette County has everything that money can buy.

"But we have lost what money can't buy," says Fandek. "Clean air, clean water, our sense of place and our sense of self."

Because it's nothing new, there is a name for the lawlessness and depression that comes with the dubious gift of a mineral boom -- Gillette Syndrome. More than 30 years ago, the psychologist El Dean Kohrs coined the term to describe the ills then being visited upon the booming coal town of Gillette, Wyoming.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to coin a phrase to describe the refusal to learn from our past mistakes, "Sublette Syndrome."

Wyoming-based writer Alexandra Fuller is author, most recently of "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant."  To top of page

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