Westerners Bear Witness to U.S. Energy Boom’s Health and Environmental Tolls
Coal, oil, and natural gas deposits have brought development, jobs, and tax revenue to Western states. But as recounted by locals in a recent storytelling project, fossil fuels have also created vicious boom-and-bust cycles that leave social upheaval, health problems, and environmental destruction in their wake.
“We’re kind of a poster child for extraction,” said L.J. Turner, a third-generation rancher in Gillette, Wyoming, who, with his wife, Karen, is among the 10 profiles in Living With Oil and Gas.
Created by a nonprofit called the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the project—published on a Facebook page, as an Instagram feed, and as a downloadable e-book—features the first-person stories of Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, and Colorado residents about what it’s like to live with a coal mine, a hydraulic fracturing operation, or a methane well as a nearby neighbor. All are members of local grassroots community organizations affiliated with WORC.
His family’s sheep and cattle run on upwards of 10,000 acres, said Turner. But the federal government owns the subsurface mineral rights for most of the land, and in more than six decades of rising and falling fortunes in the fossil energy industry, the Turners have had little say in how those rights are used. “We have some 6,000 acres leased to coal mines. Several companies drilled a number of methane wells,” Turner said. “We have a lot of uranium around the area. And then we have the deep-well fracking. We pretty well get everything that they come up with from the extractive industries.”
The Turners have seen dozens of calves die over the years after exposure to the dust clouds thrown up by blasting at coal strip mines, which occupy some 6,000 acres of nearby land, he said, while once-abundant antelopes and sage grouse have nearly vanished from the ranch. “On the creek we used to have fish in the spring holes,” said Turner. “That’s all gone now. The coal mining has severed the aquifers and the creek.”
Turner participated in Living With Oil and Gas because he believes people in the rest of the country need to understand the real harm unrestrained energy extraction has caused in communities such as Gillette. “Wyoming is a very Republican area, and I don’t agree with most of what they say,” said Turner. “I’m used to being the oddball, you might say. It doesn’t bother me to stand up and say, ‘I don’t like this.’ I would like to see the state of Wyoming and the federal government get enthusiastic about getting these people to reclaim their coal mines.”
Leslie Robinson of Rifle, Colorado, has also witnessed several boom-and-bust cycles in the local energy economy and has come to believe that the negative impacts—ranging from overcrowded schools to spiking respiratory illnesses from dust and methane air pollution—have outrun the economic benefits.
“It’s real important for elected leaders to know that the citizens are very angry about the rules and regulations that favor the oil and gas industry,” said Robinson. Of Living With Oil and Gas, she said, “I think the project highlights our voices and gives us a megaphone.”
“There’s a lot of pressure out here for the states to get control of federal lands,” she added. “It’s the reach of the industry into the political system. We need the people back East to join with us and say, this land belongs to everybody.”
Joletta Bird Bear, a landowner on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in Mandaree, North Dakota, charged that oil and gas companies leasing thousands of hydraulic fracturing sites on the reservation—and the government officials who approved the leases—failed to follow laws requiring environmental impact assessments ahead of development and are now violating air pollution regulations.
“People who do not live in such an industrialized development do not understand the day-to-day impacts that we’re facing,” said Bird Bear. The reservation, located in the heart of the Bakken oil shale region, is the home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.
“Right now on Fort Berthold, I see methane flares in every direction I look,” she said. “Even though North Dakota has a no-waste rule, which means you are not allowed to waste a natural resource, and even though [the Bureau of Land Management] has the same rule, we still have open flaring.”
A study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Colorado found that oil production in Montana and North Dakota leaks 275,000 tons of methane emissions a year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and, in high enough concentrations, can sicken or suffocate humans.
On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules for methane and other toxic air emissions from the natural gas industry that aim to curb methane leaks by 510,000 tons a year by 2025.
The lack of environmental assessments has made it hard to document the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the area’s air quality and water resources, said Bird Bear. “Whether it’s the hydrology or the water cycle, the water resources, the changes in the natural cover of the earth, changes to the air, changes to the economy, changes to the social structure of tribal societies, impacts to education, the socialization of people—those things were never considered.”
Living With Oil and Gas is “a needed forum for national interest,” she said. “I have a very strong connection to the land, as many other indigenous people do. And with that comes a responsibility to see that no harm comes to it.”
Correction May 16, 2016:
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of L.J. Turner's wife, which is Karen. All the Western states residents profiled in Living With Oil and Gas are members of local grassroots community organizations affiliated with WORC.