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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch | The Nation

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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

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Oil and gas drilling "is a huge issue out here," says Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an organization founded by ranchers and landowners several decades ago to rein in coal strip-mining in the region. The council's focus today is coal-bed methane extraction, whose primary waste product is water. Already, according to Morrison, 1-2 million barrels of water get pumped out every day in the Powder River Basin on a mere 12,000 producing wells, a sensitive issue in a state as arid as Wyoming. "This is water that comes from aquifers people use, so ranchers and farmers are losing their water wells," she says. "The second problem is that companies are discharging this water to the surface, and it's killing the native vegetation because it has a high sodium content."

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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This past March, Marjorie West, a rancher from Wyoming, appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and described how coal-bed methane drilling had disrupted her life to the point that her husband had to start taking high-blood-pressure medication to deal with the stress. The drilling cut off the water supply from three artesian wells on their private land. Meanwhile, a nearby creek was flooded with waste water so loaded with sodium that it destroyed vegetation and 200 cottonwood trees lining the creek. "Our lives have been turned upside down, our health has deteriorated and we spend our days fighting with companies," West told the Senate. "We no longer have time for the ranching and farming that was our way of life."

West added that her experience was "not isolated. There are many landowners who have lost water wells or had companies come on their land without an agreement, building roads and well pads or discharging water that has killed soil and vegetation." In fact, two days after touring the Blancett allotment, I met with a rancher named Ron Burkett, who lost an artesian well on his land when a pipeline built by a company disrupted the flow. Burkett's 4,000-acre cattle ranch in southern Colorado looks fairly isolated from afar--you have to drive several miles along dusty back roads to get there--but the closer you get, the more you notice the gas wells connected by pipelines that crisscross the terrain. Although the entire ranch is privately owned, Burkett doesn't control the subsurface rights, and companies can now drill wells every 160 acres (the old rule was every 320 acres). "When they start doing this, especially on the scale that they're doing it on us, it's like suddenly instead of living out in the middle of nowhere with all the wildlife and quietude and so on, you're living in an industrial zone," says Burkett. "I can hear four gas wells pumping water from my house, and there's activity going by every day."

What most angers ranchers like the Blancetts is not that drilling is taking place but that, despite the scale of operations and the immense profits being generated, the oil and gas industry is not held accountable for unfenced pits or other negligent behavior. It is instead allowed to police itself. "There are two on-ground BLM inspectors for all the wells in San Juan County," says Tweeti. "Do the math. There's no way they can monitor whether industry is following the rules." Steve Henke, head of the BLM's Farmington office, which oversees the Blancett allotment and much of the San Juan Basin, maintains that the system is working fine. "We have a program to achieve compliance" with federal standards to minimize adverse impacts, he told me. "It can range from an inspector making personal verbal contact [with a company], to a written order, to an incident of noncompliance, to a fine up to and including the suspension of operation on a lease." I asked Henke how many leases had been suspended on the 19,000 wells in the Farmington area during the past year. He could not recall a single one. Did he really have enough inspectors to insure that industry followed the rules and respected other land users? "I think I do," he said. Sherrie Landon, one of the two on-ground inspectors employed by the BLM, happened to drop by when I was meeting with Tweeti. She offered a different view. "There's just so much to do out there, and we have a hard time just keeping up with the new disturbances," Landon told me. "It's so busy, and they're drilling so many more [wells]."

The rising frustration among ranchers and farmers, who increasingly view the Bush Administration as the handmaiden of oil and gas interests, presents an opportunity for John Kerry: to outline an energy policy that will balance oil and gas development with their interests. Calling for limits on the density of wells and the scale of development, for a halt to leasing in sensitive habitats and for companies to be held accountable to higher standards--in Wyoming, for example, industry could be required to re-inject all the waste water back into the ground--would hardly leave Americans suddenly starved of natural gas. As David Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society notes, the BLM itself has acknowledged that fully 88 percent of the natural gas on federal land is already available for development under current land-use prescriptions. The recent push by industry, aided and abetted by an Administration only too happy to smooth the path, is simply a product of greed, Alberswerth contends.

Kerry has indicated that he favors limits on drilling in Otero Mesa, which, according to a poll conducted by New Mexico-based Research & Polling, is the approach preferred by 64 percent of the state's registered voters (and 47 percent of Republicans). His energy plan, however, is vague on details and calls for expanding natural gas supplies without addressing the concerns of ranchers like the Blancetts. On the day I visited, Tweeti Blancett was busy drafting a memo that a friend of hers had said he would pass along to Kerry's advisers. "There is a large block of votes in the West that is undecided," the memo began. "We have heard neither party address the rush to drill for oil and gas without regard for the other users of the land.... WE WANT SOMEBODY TO STAND UP FOR THE LEGACY OF THE WEST."

Tweeti smiled evasively when I asked whom she was planning to vote for this fall. "I'm not committing," she said. "I want to see something from these boys that concerns the West. I would like [Kerry] to take a stand--either one of them to take a stand--and say, 'Industry will comply with the existing regulations. Industry will be held responsible.'"

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