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Wyoming Gas Environment Death*

May 19, 2002 Talk about it E-mail story Print

Nation's Energy Needs Collide With a Way of Life

Policy: Bush team's push for natural-gas drilling in Wyoming is creating havoc with ranchers.

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By ELIZABETH SHOGREN, Times Staff Writer

SPOTTED HORSE, Wyo. -- When an energy company offered to tap the natural gas deposits locked in the coal beds under his land, Bill West thought he had finally hit the pay dirt his father had dreamed of since homesteading the ranch in 1919.

Not only would he reap royalties from the gas, but the huge quantity of ground water pumped from the wells during production would support his crops and livestock. "My dad said he would live easy once he struck oil," West, 69, recalled.

Instead, with 45 wells producing methane, life is much harder on West's picture-postcard ranch, where antelope range with his cows and the grassy prairie melds into jagged sienna-colored hills topped with pine trees.

The water turned out to be the villain.

Two winters ago, water from thousands of upstream wells flooded Spotted Horse Creek where it flows through West's ranch. There it iced over and remained for months. Now the 200 or so stately cottonwood trees that line the creek--adored in this land of few trees--are dead.

About 15 acres of his best hay meadows were so severely damaged that nothing has grown on them since.

What West and other ranchers didn't know is that while the water extracted with the methane is safe for thirsty cows, it is so salty that it damages the soil and kills the vegetation. The problem of what to do with the millions of gallons a day from these wells has emerged as the most vexing environmental challenge to the promising source of domestic energy, state and federal officials agree.

The natural-gas boom in northeastern Wyoming pits the nation's thirst for energy against a way of life that ranchers have practiced for generations in this countryside where elk and wild trout still abound and the sky goes on forever.

The Bush administration has designated this region's coal-bed methane as a key part of its goal of boosting energy production. Because the federal government owns the majority of mineral rights, the administration has authority to set the tone for its development here and in downstream Montana, putting to the test President Bush's pledge to protect the environment while increasing energy supplies.

Early indications of the Bush administration's plans trouble many who care about the ecology of the remote and fragile region. The Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency was so concerned about the Bureau of Land Management's 10-year blueprint for developing 51,000 wells across the Powder River Basin that it gave the plan the worst possible rating last week for failing to protect the region's environment, particularly its rivers.

The BLM's draft environmental impact statement calls for rapidly producing 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about 80% of the nation's annual need), a goal that will bring to the surface 4.2 million acre-feet of ground water--naturally high in sodium in these parts--enough to cover Connecticut and Rhode Island with a foot of water, said Paul Beels, the BLM project manager.

Federally held mineral rights will bring in an estimated $2.7 billion in royalties, half of which will go to the state of Wyoming, Beels added. The state also receives royalties from mineral rights it owns and tax revenue from each well in the basin.

That money gives federal and state officials incentive to quickly approve production of federal minerals, which has been stalled pending completion of the environmental impact statement.

But many ranchers who have long been stewards of this land accuse the state and federal governments of approving wide-scale destruction of the arid region's fragile soil and scarce water as they speed ahead to reap the invisible gold.

"I'm not against drilling," said Ed Swartz, a rancher who has lost grazing land to methane water. "I'm just against how they're doing it. They need to do it in a responsible and environmentally sound manner. I've worked to improve my ranch my whole life. I don't want to lose it to methane. Nobody should have a right to destroy somebody else's way of making a living."

"It's the hellbent gold-rush mentality that's causing a lot of the problems," added Jill Morrison, a rancher and organizer of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental group with almost 1,000 members, about half of them ranchers.

But coal-bed methane producers complain that they are already over-regulated and reject the suggestion that they are callously harming the environment.

"I know people have a bad perception of the oil and gas industry, but we are developing the resource for the consumer," said Dru Bower, vice president of the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming. "The bottom line is the resource needs to be developed--even for environmentalists and their families."

Some ranchers--those who have benefited financially from the methane production and whose operations haven't been harmed by the water--say that coal-bed methane has been a godsend that has allowed them to quit their day jobs and return to full-time ranching.

"People told me that the whole valley would be ruined and the grass would be dead and we wouldn't have fields," said Joanne Tweedy, 58, whose 5,000-acre ranch, small by local standards, hosts 51 coal-bed methane wells. "That never happened. The economic boon has been wonderful for smaller ranchers."

But ranchers downstream from Tweedy, not to mention the Denver EPA office, have a different perspective.

The EPA says the BLM's approach would violate federal and state water quality laws by making at least two rivers--the Tongue and the Bell Forche--unsuitable for irrigation. The elevated sodium levels in this ground water prevents the soil from percolating and chokes plant growth when used for irrigation. The soil damage can be irreversible, the EPA said.

And the coal beds release a lot of water. Companies discharge it into natural drainages or hold it in hundreds of ponds--some natural and others built or expanded for this purpose. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says 60 million gallons are extracted a day, enough to serve Anaheim or Riverside. And the project is only a fraction of the size that it will be at the peak envisioned by the BLM.

To extract the methane, companies drill wells hundreds of feet deep to a coal seam. Then they pump out the water that has trapped the gas in the coal. The gas flows out to a pipeline; the water is usually released at the surface, where it flows into drainage channels or is pumped into ponds.

Some companies have tried to pump the water back into the ground, but the aquifers in the Powder River Basin do not readily receive water, said Lance Cook, the state geologist. Also, the amount of water is enormous. For each cubic foot of methane that is produced, these coal beds yield about 100 times more water than coal beds in the San Juan Basin on each side of the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Spraying of Water Only Hardens Soil

Some companies are trying to spray the water into the air with tall atomizers. But when that was tried here, West said, the soil under the atomizers became so hard that grass couldn't grow in it.

Some operators are not so considerate. When rancher Patricia Clark challenged her operator over the death of her edible vegetation, the operator took her to court. She won, but only after $45,000 in legal fees. Now she is working with a new operator, but she will not let any new wells be drilled until she is sure there is a workable plan to dispose of the water without additional harm to her grazing land.

"I want them to produce," said Clark, 49, who heads the fourth generation of her family ranching this land. "I've got minerals. I'd like to make money, but I'd like to protect my surface so I can continue ranching and so my kids can continue ranching."

Ed Swartz has no wells on his land, but the 8-foot-wide bed of Wildcat Creek that meanders 11 miles through his property carries methane water from upstream. The creek bed used to be dry for most of the year and provided some of the best grass on his ranch. "I grazed that all winter," said Swartz, 61.

Now water with high sodium content runs through it most of the year, and cows won't eat the vegetation that grows in and around it. "Collateral damage is what they call it in the military," Swartz said. "I don't want to be collateral damage; I worked too doggone hard."

After trying for many months to get the attention of state officials, Swartz sued the state and the methane well operator upstream from his ranch for sending salty water his way.

"I really love this ranch," said Swartz, whose son now does most of the ranching while he fights the methane companies. "It's heartbreaking that because of government policies it might not be able to continue on in the family."

State officials, who are committed to the development but are aware of the unintended consequences, said irresponsible operators who don't follow guidelines or respect landowner rights are causing many of the problems.

"We've got good operators; we have bad operators. We've got happy landowners and unhappy landowners," said Cook, the state geologist. "We've done our best to thump heads when bad operators act out."

The battle for the basin is also about preserving the scenic beauty of one of the least populated areas of the country as energy companies string 5,000 miles of new power line, build 17,000 miles of new roads and bury 20,000 miles of new pipeline.

Fred Dowd, who runs a money management firm in Casper, was so captivated by this region's charms that he bought a ranch on the west side of the Powder River Basin four years ago as a retreat for himself and his clients.

With spectacular views of the Big Horn Mountains, a pristine trout stream and plentiful wildlife, it seemed the perfect getaway. He was told that the conservation easement on the property prevented mineral development. He was misinformed.

A coal-bed methane company called last fall to announce it had leased the minerals under his land and planned to start drilling. Under state law, mineral rights trump surface rights, and Dowd is one of many surface owners who do not own mineral rights.

"They were very aggressive," Dowd recalled. "They said, 'We're going to do it whether you like it or not. You better cooperate or it will be worse for you.' "

He has tried to limit the damage to his property by requiring the company to bury power poles, controlling where they drill wells and limiting the heavy truck traffic.

He has sought to keep the methane water from flowing into Clear Creek, which now has crystal-clear water from mountain springs. His legal bills are mounting.

"If I don't fight them, they'll destroy the place, and if I do fight them it will destroy me financially," Dowd said.

He paid $3.2 million for the property and still owes $1.8 million on it. "It's not worth that," Dowd said. "It's the single worst mistake I've ever made in my life."

Effects of Emptying Aquifers Feared

Duane Zavadil, environmental specialist for Williams, a Tulsa, Okla.-based energy company and the biggest producer in the basin, has no apology for the fact that surface owners are inconvenienced by the production of minerals they don't own.

"I think it's a little bit elitist when somebody in Wyoming doesn't want a pickup truck on his road or a nice water flow going through his property," Zavadil said.

In a dry place like the Powder River Basin, ranchers and scientists worry about the long-term effects of emptying the shallow aquifers.

Wells have already started going dry, including the Wests' wells for livestock and home use. Water from a new $40,000 well dug by an energy company contains so much iron that it stains clothes and tastes too bad to drink.

"Wyoming is arid, and here we are throwing away hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day to make enough methane to feed our national gas appetite for a year," said Walter Merschat, a geologist who consults for oil and gas companies.

Zavadil said that 95% of the water is seeping back into the ground and will eventually refill the aquifers.

But West doesn't believe him. "They are so dishonest," he said.

Representatives from the energy companies laughed at West three years ago when he expressed concern about the extracted water that would flow through his property from hundreds of wells upstream.

Now his cottonwoods are dead and he's left with the task of trying to figure out what to do with the decaying trunks of the once-graceful trees.

"We don't have many trees out here, and we liked those trees; we thought they were really pretty," said Marge West, Bill's wife. "Isn't that just criminal?"

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