THE POWER OF POWER: Boomtown

Nineteen years ago, Perry Walker found his way back to Wyoming. He had finished a satisfying career in the U.S. Air Force and decided to search for the perfect piece of land in the Rocky Mountains to build a home and an observatory. There, he could spend his retirement gazing through a telescope into the night skies. He found the place – a mountain valley in his native state – and followed through with his dream.

The Upper Green River Valley, one of the least populated areas of the United States, was the perfect choice. The nearest community of any consequence – Pinedale, in Sublette County – was little more than a hardware store, a few restaurants, the Cowboy Bar and some motels. The lights of civilization wouldn’t obscure Walker’s view of the stars; he had landed in an astronomer’s heaven.

Today, Walker cannot track gamma-ray bursts for NASA, as he did on contract after building his observatory. In fact, he can’t see the lower third of the evening sky, even with a high-powered telescope and night-vision equipment. Lights and haze from drilling rigs, truck traffic and the glow of new housing developments stand between Walker and the star-crusted skies.

Western Wyoming is in the middle of one of America’s most dramatic energy booms.

Since Walker settled in for retirement, drilling companies have sunk about 4,000 gas and oil wells into this resource-rich slice of the rural West. More than 6,000 additional wells are planned near Pinedale alone. Air and water quality have risen as issues of concern among those who call the Upper Green Valley home. Around-the-clock drilling, hundreds of miles of new access roads and sprawling housing developments are driving out the sage grouse, trophy mule deer, antelope and elk herds that have helped support a robust outdoor recreation economy for decades. Development has been so rapid that many sportsmen, ranchers, outfitters and old-timers – people who traditionally keep to themselves – are beginning to wonder if the economic benefits outweigh the long-term environmental costs.

“I wish all of these people touting clean, natural gas could come out here and see what it’s doing to the countryside,” says Tom Reed, of Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range, a coalition trying to keep energy development from encroaching deeper into the pristine mountains west of Pinedale.

“When I was in the Air Force, I loathed environmentalists,” Walker says. “Then I came home and saw the energy development destroying Wyoming, and I thought, ‘No way. Other states have to share the pain first.’”

In a country reeling from a recession, and unemployment on the rise almost everywhere else, western Wyoming is flourishing. The number of gas and oil field jobs quadrupled in the Pinedale area from 2001 to 2007. Workers earning an average of $49,000 a year plus overtime are part of an energy payroll that topped $122 million in Sublette County in 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That same year, the mineral industry paid more than $200 million in royalty taxes on gas and oil extracted from the county. Still, many who live here and have seen booms go bust before, are suspicious that the benefits won’t outlast the costs, which may be permanent. The problem, they say, is not that the drilling occurs – it’s the feverish pace. Many residents are concerned that the current upswing will drive up real-estate prices, exhaust public services, erode the quality of life and then vanish.

“The money’s here now, but everyone knows that is temporary,” says outfitter Gary Amerine, who has hunted this country since the 1960s, before he joined the Marines. “We need to buckle down and come up with an energy policy that is not as short-lived as fossil fuels.”

Dan Smitherman Jr., another Marine who turned to outfitting after the service, says such a strategy is long overdue. “We need a national energy plan that embraces electrical production, gas production, crude-oil production and alternative energy. Anybody with half a brain knows fossil fuels are a finite resource,” he says. “We can drill everywhere, and we’re still going to run out.”

Energy companies acknowledge the boom has caused some conflicts in western Wyoming. “Air quality is a huge issue up here in Sublette County,” says Kevin Williams, Pinedale district manager for Questar, one of the largest natural gas companies working in the region. Diesel-powered drilling rigs and heavy tracked vehicles are the main causes of nitrous oxide buildup in the air, but Questar has cut such emissions by more than 60 percent with cleaner-burning engines.

“Everything we do up here, we’re trying to do better, so we have the least impact on wildlife,” Williams says. “It comes down to balancing wildlife and air quality and water quality, and being able to extract the energy resource the nation needs.”

The United States burned a record 182 million gallons of gasoline a day by 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Average gasoline prices climbed to more than $4 a gallon by spring 2008 and were above $5 a gallon in some locations by July. Nearly 60 percent of that demand was met with imported petroleum.

Last summer’s price surge put energy independence back atop the national agenda, just in time for the presidential campaign. Bumper stickers touted, “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less,” and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin roused job-hungry, price-weary crowds with buzz phrases like, “Drill, baby, drill!” Congress allowed the offshore drilling ban to expire, and the energy industry began pushing to sink more wells in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains.

Energy experts, however, caution that drilling alone won’t solve our energy problems. “I personally don’t have a problem drilling in places we haven’t drilled,” says Henry Lee, an energy and public policy expert who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “We just have to look at the environmental costs.” Still, Lee is not sure increased domestic drilling will keep  gasoline prices under control. “If we explored and developed the remaining offshore areas, and most of the remaining onshore resources, the additional daily supply of oil would not be large enough to have a significant downward impact on the price of oil.”

U.S. drilling rigs have not been idle during the global increase in oil consumption. Drilling on federal lands has increased more than 260 percent in the past decade. And more than 44 million acres of public land – an area nearly the size of North Dakota – is leased to energy companies.

Wyoming has been drilling, mining and generating kilowatts at a record pace. The state leads the country in coal and uranium mining. It is second to Texas in natural gas production, and plans exist to build one of America’s largest wind farms here.

Yet Wyoming struggles to deliver its abundance to market; it produces natural gas far faster than it can be transported, due to a lack of pipelines. Wind-power companies cannot send kilowatts to energy-hungry states like California without new transmission lines – an ambitious venture, given the current state of recession.

“There is a lot of wind potential here and great interest in developing it,” says Rob Hurless, energy policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. “But developers come here, look at the transmission situation and say, ‘Man, oh, man ... we’re not going to be able to do anything for years.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Wyoming Range holds 5 million barrels of oil – enough to supply the United States for about six hours – and 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, less than a month’s supply for the country. The range is also home to the world’s largest herd of Shiras moose, three species of prized cutthroat trout, elk, lynx, bighorn sheep and other wildlife that keep outfitters like Amerine in business.

“Is one or two days’ worth of natural gas worth ruining 100,000 or 200,000 acres of national forest? I rely on repeat customers ... some of whom save for years to come and hunt for mule deer, and they aren’t going to pay for a guided hunting trip through a gas field,” Amerine says.

Freudenthal has called on the federal government to stop selling drilling leases in the Wyoming Range and buy back the ones already sold to oil and gas companies – a move that enjoys strong support from some oil and gas workers who profit from the boom. Wyoming’s congressional delegation also wants to have the range set aside.

“The Wyoming Range holds the same appeal as Yellowstone for many people, and even the most ardent developer would not suggest drilling in Yellowstone,” says Hurless, Freudenthal’s energy adviser. In addition, “the amount of gas potential in the Wyoming Range, given various estimates, is not going to make a difference in the prices people pay. Nor is it going to make a difference in energy independence.”

Harvard energy expert Lee agrees the United States will have to focus on more than just supply to resolve our energy problems. “If you want to have a big effect, you are going to have to address the other side of the equation – demand,” Lee says. “That means conservation, more efficient vehicles, changing the way we use cars and increasing our use of bio-fuels.”

Conservation is getting more traction today than when President Jimmy Carter donned his cardigan, appeared on TV and pleaded with people to dial down their thermostats. The Pacific Northwest has been steadily cutting its per-capita electrical use since the early 1980s. It saved 250 megawatts in 2008 – enough to power about 250,000 homes, Weiss says. “By 2010, the region could offset all of its growth in electrical demand – estimated to hit 340 megawatts per year – with conservation, if we increase our efforts.”

“Most of these measures are good for the economy and good for the environment,” Weiss adds. And using plug-in electric cars, which could recharge at night when there is less power demand, could help make the United States more energy independent.

“I’m pretty optimistic we can get off foreign oil,” Weiss says. “It will take 20 years to get enough alternative energy.”

The economy stalled last year just as the development of solar power, wind power and electric cars were drawing election-year attention. Oil prices plummeted, and so did public interest in energy conservation.

“I think we are in for highly volatile prices for oil,” Lee says. “Once this recession is over, I think the price of oil will go back up – and go higher than it was before.”

Amerine, Smitherman, Walker and others living in the thick of Wyoming’s energy boom are openly worried what it will mean for them – and their place on the planet – when the rebound comes. “We need balance,” Amerine says. “Granted, we need more energy independence. At the same time, we’d better start looking toward the future and protecting the resources people enjoy.”

Ken Olsen, a Wyoming native, is a freelance writer living in Oregon.

 

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