BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. There's nothing short of a transformation underway in the vast landscape of America, and it's not just urban sprawl. The great American West is about to experience a new gold rush. The wealth this time will not be in gold nuggets but in oil rigs, methane and natural gas wells, and coal mines. President Bush wants more drilling, more mining, and more logging on public lands. So companies are getting a green light to exploit much of the 700 million acres controlled by the federal government. We can see what this means by taking you to the Powder River region of northern Wyoming.

MOYERS: We're the most energy-consuming people on the planet, we Americans — and we're always hungry for more. Turning on the lights, turning up the thermostat and turning on the ignition mean burning more and more fossil fuel, the gift of the dinosaurs. We are the demand. Supplying our demand is changing the earth. You see our impact here in the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming. This is the largest coal producing area in America. Fourteen mines running in a line seventy miles along the eastern edge of the basin provide one-third of all our coal. This is where the underground minerals rise to the surface — and the impact of our choices becomes clear. Below ground is energy and profit for fossil fuel companies and producers. Above is grass and dust, wind and sky, cattle and hard work. It's a way of life these ranchers inherited from the last century.

JILL MORRISON: People that live on the land, particularly here in Wyoming, very conservative, mostly Republican. But they care about the land. They care about the water. They care about the air. And those are the folks that stepped forward.

MOYERS: Jill Morrison is an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. They're ranchers who first fought surface mining 28 years ago. Most of them thought that was the end of the struggle, because most of the coal in the basin is too deep to mine. But about five years ago, somebody figured out how to drill under the cattle pastures for the methane gas that surrounds the coal.

JILL MORRISON: All of a sudden someone's knocking at your door and says, 'Hey, I'm coming in with a drill rig because I own the minerals beneath your property and I have the right to come and develop them. And sorry, sorry, it's going to turn your life upside down for the next ten or fifteen years'."

MOYERS: From the time settlers began homesteading the West, mineral rights were bought and sold separately from the surface land. By common practice and legal precedent, Wyoming ranchers who don't control their own mineral rights must give access to the oil and gas producers.

JOHN KENNEDY/KENNEDY OIL AND GAS: The dominant usage here is the minerals. And producers can go in and develop the minerals, without the consent of the surface owners. . . . The surface land owner can't exclude, the development of those minerals. So he doesn't have the right to stop that development. The minerals have - they come first in line. . . . so, that's just too bad.

BILL WEST: Each well is supposed to last, they estimate ten years, but they're still drilling more wells. It could be maybe another twenty years before, they're still drilling. So that's a long time, I think, they'll be producing.

MOYERS: There are 13,000 wells now in the basin, with hundreds more going up every week. Methane producers pay gas royalties to ranchers who own their own minerals and much lower surface fees to ranchers who don't.

JILL MORRISON: There's the mineral owners who are making a lot of money and the surface owners who are just getting a little money, or the people who happen to be lucky enough, that small minority that owns both the mineral and the surface, who really wants the development because it is going to be a lot of money for them. So they're pitted against their neighbor who's next to them or downstream from them who's experiencing the damages.

MOYERS: Ranchers welcome the income from the deal. But they are also finding out that the drilling can quite literally cost them the ranch. The coal seams run deep under the Powder River Basin. To get the methane gas, the developer has to drill a shaft down to the coal bed and remove the water that holds the gas in place. The gas flows into a pipeline — and the water becomes a nuisance, an unwanted byproduct to throw away. Developers are dumping more than sixty million gallons of water a day on basin ranchlands. They call this technique "de-watering." Others call it a waste of this region's most precious and endangered resource.

WALT MERSCHAT: Water was gold in Wyoming. I mean, if you did anything to anybody's water rights, you know, you got in a gun battle?...Now all of a sudden we're dumping water on the surface in proportions never seen before from precipitation. Maybe 10,000 years ago during the last glacial period...

MOYERS: Walt Merschat is a geologist who has seen the damage done by coalbed methane drilling elsewhere in the West. He advises members of the Powder River Resource Council on what to look out for.

WALT MERSCHAT: Any vegetation lost in the field?

BILL WEST: Yes. We lost two hundred cottonwood trees and —

WALT MERSCHAT: And how old were they?

BILL WEST: Oh, up to 200, some of them.

WALT MERSCHAT: So 200-year-old trees and now they're dying which means it's not a drought, it's something different that's causing that, right?

MOYERS: The waste water from methane drilling is often polluted with too much salt, calcium and manganese, all of which can kill vegetation. The highly explosive methane itself also poses a risk if it vents directly to the surface.

WALT MERSCHAT: You don't go underneath there and light a cigarette do you?

BILL WEST: You can see the fire, the burnt place on the board.


WALT MERSCHAT: You did that?

BILL WEST: Yeah. We lit a match and, it flamed up six feet.

WALT MERSCHAT: I don't think they'd get angry if you heated your house with it. I mean, there's a lot of methane coming out ---

MARGE WEST: There is a lot in there.

BILL WEST: Yeah, that would heat a house there.

WALT MERSCHAT: I heard of . . . a rancher . . . got up one morning and had eight or ten head of cattle dead beside one of their water tanks.

MARGE WEST: Really? . . .

WALT MERSCHAT: Yeah and this water is going up to the house and all the vegetation.

MARGE WEST: And you see with this water, it kills the lawn; however, without the water, the lawn turns brown anyway because it dries - dies for lack of water. So it's...

BILL WEST: It keeps it green but it won't grow.

MARGE WEST: Yeah. It's like a two-headed dragon -- you know, no matter what you do, you're wrong.

WALT MERSCHAT: It isn't working.

BILL WEST: This is a desert area. This ground water they're pumping out — I think it's gone forever. I don't know how long it'll take to recharge it. We've got plenty of water now for stock water. But when they're gone, I don't think there'll be anything left in the ground to use in future. . . It took thousands of years to recharge these aquifers. But they're pumping it out and in maybe ten years it will be gone. Maybe less. All of our wells have gone dry anyway.

MARGE WEST: Here they are killing our land and they keep on doing it and it's perfectly legal.

MOYERS: By government estimates, the methane under the Powder River Basin could bring $75 billion in gross sales — and a tax bonanza for the state.

WALT MERSCHAT: The politics of this state are pro-development... And prior to the coalbed methane boom, we had economic problems. The schools didn't have enough money. We were losing people. I mean, our state population is going - going backward. We weren't getting — a lot of kids would graduate from college and immediately leave. So the economy was really hurting. And so now here comes this cash cow, coalbed methane. And all we have to do is — is just drill these shallow wells and -- and throw the water away and that's exactly what's going on right now. It's just easy.

MOYERS: And this is only the beginning. The majority of the mineral rights in the basin are owned by the federal government which proposes allowing 80,000 wells over the next ten years. At peak development, there will be three hundred and forty million gallons of waste water a day. According to the Bureau of Land Management's own draft environmental statement this could put sixteen new species on the endangered list . . . destroy forage for grazing animals, including cattle . . . and bring about the loss of ground water here forever.

Ed Swartz has ranched this land for fifty years.

ED SWARTZ: And of course, I'm not a scientist but this creek was never dead like this before. There was grass. There would be a little channel down through there, the grass would be so tall that you couldn't see the channel later in the summer. And I grazed this all winter long and I've lost all the grazing out of it and left this salt deposit — this was never this way before.

ED SWARTZ: It's terrible when you have to fight for your way to make a living and people won't acknowledge that they're hurting you. And like I say, when this washes out on these meadows, you'll see that this is a pretty good alfalfa meadow here. I've got two cuttings of hay off of this thing here. . . . but if that kind of stuff washes out on there, I'm going to lose those meadows. What gets me is that these industry people will say anything.

WALT MERSCHAT: We can't destroy that much property just for a what? half year's supply of natural gas. I mean I can't stop it, nobody can stop it. There's too much money and too much of a political picture behind this thing. But if I could, I'd stop it and I'd say, 'Wait, now let's just think about this thing -- how can we develop it and save the water, be careful about seepage, worry about subsidence — can we do that? I think there are some things we could do but right now it's too tied into easy dollar to even think about a sensible way of developing it.

ED SWARTZ: Okay, so it's going on to keep doing that?

WALT MERSCHAT: Yeah, it's going to keep sloughing off and narrowing down your channel.

ED SWARTZ: Oh, it's so discouraging. Everything I've worked for all my life and — and some guys are about to screw that up because they don't care about anybody else except how much money they can make.

MOYERS: The search for coalbed methane is cutting a broad stripe through the Rocky Mountain states, across the Gulf coast of Texas into the Deep South as far as Florida, along a Midwest arch on both sides of the Mississippi and running into the historic coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There is hardly a region untouched.

JILL MORRISON: We could easily supply this country with energy in a much more sustainable fashion, in a much more efficient way, in a much more environmentally friendly, less damaging way. But nobody's standing up and taking, you know, as a, who has a leadership role and saying, 'Let's do it,' because we're motivated by greed and we've got to have it now.

MOYERS: Here's a footnote to that report from Powder River. The energy bill now before the Senate provides almost $3 billion in tax credits to coalbed methane operators.

They include huge and profitable companies that are among the biggest contributors to political candidates — names like Anadarko Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Peabody, Texaco and Unocal.

Meanwhile, here are just a few places where the administration would permit more drilling — Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area in Montana, Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, and Utah's Redrock Canyon.

Employees of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah have been directed to speed up the process of drilling in that state.

All of this prompts our commentary from the Utah writer and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams. She is best known for her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It's a very personal account of her passion for her family and the natural world.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS: I'm standing at Dead Horse Point, one of the most spectacular vistas in all of the Southwest. Below me is the Colorado River meandering through Canyonlands National Park, shaped by water, wind and time. The silence one finds here is a reminder that there are still places of peace in this world.

But it may not be for long, if the Bush Administration has its way. In the name of national security, we are being asked to sacrifice sensitive wildlands throughout the American West and Alaska. Eighty-five percent of Utah's public lands, that translates to over 20 million acres in all, are now open for oil and gas exploration. Oil drilling has already been approved in much of this redrock wilderness.

Last week, I witnessed the Bush/Cheney Energy Plan in action, just outside Arches National Park. Huge 50,000 pound trucks roared through the delicate landscape, leaving behind broken junipers and crushed cottonwoods, delicate soils obliterated. It will take hundreds of years for the scars on this landscape to now heal.

The oil fields erected in this area, during the first Bush Administration, have yielded only 1/10th of one day's US energy consumption over the past 10 years. Even so, new derricks and pumps are planned on the rim of Dead Horse State Park within months.

We can learn something from this redrock country as we stand on its edge. These rocks tell time differently. In the desert, there is time and space where we can begin to experience the settling of the soul. We can learn humility in the face of Creation, reverence in the presence of light and faith in one another as we exercise restraint in the name of what lands should be developed and what lands should be preserved.

Conservation is an act of democracy, the greatest good for the greatest numbers for the longest time. Surely, the protection of these natural treasures is fundamental to "homeland security." Who can say how much nature can be destroyed without consequence? Who can say how much land can be used for extractive purposes until it is rendered barren forever? And who can know what the human spirit will be crying out for one hundred years from now?

The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying we might act with restraint.

Methane Gas Drilling in the Powder River Basin

March 8, 2002

As concerns mount about the environmental costs of fracking, we revisit a March 2002 episode of NOW, in which Bill speaks with ranchers and activists in the Powder River basin of Northern Wyoming on how fracking has affected their land, animals and water supply. Producers came back with stories of despair, dead trees, polluted land and fires.

Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, tells NOW: “All of a sudden someone’s knocking at your door and says, ‘Hey, I’m coming in with a drill rig because I own the minerals beneath your property and I have the right to come and develop them. And sorry, sorry, it’s going to turn your life upside down for the next ten or fifteen years’.”

NOW travels to Bill West’s ranch, where 200 cottonwood trees have died. “It took thousands of years to recharge these aquifers. But they’re pumping it out and in maybe 10 years it will be gone. Maybe less. All of our wells have gone dry anyway,” says West.

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