WRIGHT, Wyoming—Standing under the vast blue dome of the Wyoming sky on an August morning, rancher L.J. Turner gazes at a puddle of brown water at the bottom of a grass-ringed pit covered in thick mud. Judging from the scattering of antelope or deer bones near the water’s edge, it’s a potential death trap for any long-legged animal tempted to clamber down to take a drink.
In a state as arid as Wyoming, an all-but-empty water hole in midsummer would not seem remarkable. But it’s an unwelcome new normal to L.J., whose grandparents homesteaded this ranch in 1918, and his wife, Karen.
As L.J. describes it, this was just one of several spring-fed pools on the ranch, which is in the heart of Campbell County, about 18 miles south of the town of Wright. A creek connected the water holes, he says, which were full of fish and frogs even in the hottest summer. The pools quenched the thirst of his livestock, attracted wild pronghorn and mule deer, and were destinations for family picnics.
“I’ve seen this creek here be running water a quarter of a mile wide,” he says. “It would be as high as that rim. It would stay up all the time. On down below here, the banks of the creeks were lined with rosebushes and willows.”
“When I was small, we had fish here in the creek,” L.J. says. “Nothing fancy, no trout stream or anything like that. There was bullhead, there was perch, there was sunfish, fish that a kid can mess around with. In the wintertime, whenever I’d get to thinking I was an ice skater, I’d go down on one of these water holes and cut a hole in the ice. The water would just boil up out of the thing. It’d flood the ice completely. That night it’d freeze, and I’d have a marvelous fresh bunch of ice to go play on.”
A slight stoop in L.J’s shoulders, and the lines on Karen’s fair-skinned face, hint at the decades the Turners have spent ranching, most of them on this land in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. L.J., 75 and gray haired, speaks in a slow Western drawl, while Karen, 69, delivers her thoughts at a faster pace—possibly a remnant of her New York City girlhood. Both have ready smiles for visitors to their spacious, airy ranch house, where hand-sewn quilts cover the beds and a collection of wildlife prints and wood carvings, acquired in travels around the West and the world, bear witness to their love of nature.
But the wild roses, fish, and frogs on Turnercrest Ranch have vanished, along with many of the cottonwoods, since the federal government in the 1980s began to lease land for coal mining just east of the ranch, on grassland managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Turners paid high inheritance taxes on several thousand acres of federal grazing permits dating from the 1930s for the area, called Thunder Basin, after L.J.’s mother bequeathed the ranch to their children. Today an open-pit coal mine covers most of that land. Called North Antelope Rochelle, the mine is owned and operated by Peabody Energy. By annual output in tons per acre, it is the world’s biggest coal mine. The second largest is Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine, 10 miles to the north.
“The well here at the house, when we first got married, it was almost artesian,” says Karen. “The water came within four feet of the surface.” The water level has dropped dramatically as mining companies suck up groundwater—a process called dewatering—to gain access to coal.
“We have wells now that are over 500 feet deep,” she adds.
“The one up at the house is a thousand,” L.J. says.
“And it costs a lot of money to drill a water well,” says Karen, “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Recently they learned that the PVC lining had collapsed in a replacement well they had drilled about 10 years ago, at a cost of more than $10,000. It should have lasted for decades. “It was plastic casing, it’s pretty indestructible, and it doesn’t rust. So what happened?” L.J. says. The technician who inspected it told the Turners the likely cause was underground vibration from fracking at nearby oil wells, although “to be fair, the guy said it could be an earthquake that did that,” L.J. adds with a laugh.
Wyoming is nicknamed the Cowboy State. But coal, oil, and natural gas—not cows or sheep—dominate the state’s economy. Wyoming is one of the top 10 natural gas producers in the country and supplies 2 to 3 percent of U.S. crude oil production as well as two-fifths of the nation’s coal, according to the federal Energy Information Agency. Wyoming supplied 33 states with coal in 2013.
“Fossil fuel industries, collectively, they’ve floated Wyoming’s boat for the last several decades,” says Connie Wilbert, a Wyoming native and the director of the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club. For decades the epicenter of the state’s energy development has been the Powder River Basin. Across a wide swath of the West, from the oil-and-gas-laden Bakken Formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota to Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, advances in extraction techniques and equipment have made it possible to get at once-inaccessible oil and gas deposits. The Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills were dramatic disasters that have inspired feature films and attracted years of national news coverage. The headlong exploitation of fossil fuel reserves in the West has been a slower-moving story of environmental devastation, with people like the Turners pitted against powerful oil and gas companies, coal giants, and the government as fossil energy development industrializes an iconic American landscape.
In the late 1990s, a pair of laid-off oil drillers named Bruce Martens and Chuck Peck found a way to pump groundwater off shallow coal seams in the Powder River Basin, which freed natural gas from the coal, turning it from a nuisance into a valuable commodity. They eventually sold their gas fields for $40 million, setting off an energy boom that has generated thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in state revenues.
In the process, nearly 350 billion gallons of water were pumped out of the ground, at rates far faster than Wyoming’s average of 16 inches of rainfall a year could replenish.
The coal bed methane boom went bust with the Great Recession, and low oil and natural gas prices have combined with bankruptcies in the coal industry to throttle Wyoming’s economy. A full fifth of the state’s mining jobs, around 5,500 positions, vanished during the first quarter of 2016 alone—a big hit in a state with a population of 586,000. Wyoming is now contending with a budget gap as large as $150 million.
Jobs and tax revenues are not all that the Cowboy State has lost in the past decade and a half. Between 2001 and 2011, Wyoming led Western states in land consumed by development, according to The Disappearing West, a recent report from the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress. The state’s four northeastern counties, which cover Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin, lost more than 205,000 acres largely because of energy development. More than half those acres were in Campbell County, where development ate up open space nearly seven times faster than in any other part of the state.
“Natural areas are disappearing at the rate of one football field every 2.5 minutes” across the West, said geographer and biologist David Theobald, one of the study’s authors.
A 2009 environmental impact statement, prepared by the federal Bureau of Land Management prior to an expansion of coal leases in Thunder Basin, echoes the Turners’ assessment of why groundwater is vanishing from their ranch. According to the report, underground water levels in the basin had dropped in “a continuous cone” around the area’s five coal mines, and more deeply than predicted, because of the intensity of mining in the region and the rampant groundwater pumping during the peak of the coal bed methane boom.
In a 2013 study, the Wyoming Geological Survey found that years after the peak in coal bed methane development, water levels at 11 monitoring wells in the Powder River Basin had dropped from historic levels by an average of 294 feet—the height of the Statue of Liberty.
It’s a disaster that was completely predictable, says Walter Merschat, a Casper-based geologist who has worked for four decades in the oil and gas industry and consulted with landowners during the boom. A 2003 BLM study of environmental impacts of coal bed methane development in the Powder River Basin forecast that groundwater might “recover to within less than 20 feet” of historic levels over the next hundred years, once coal bed methane production had ended in the region. “I knew that it had happened in other parts of the world,” says Merschat. “But nobody seemed to worry about it until the ranchers started losing all that water.”
He says he believes Wyoming environmental officials failed to take the boom’s impacts on groundwater seriously. “The underlying reason is that they were tied to the state,” he said, “and the state is tied to the economy, and the economy is tied to oil, coal, and gas wealth, and they were told, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ ”
Kimberly Mazza, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said agency representatives were not available for an interview.
In 2007, L.J. and Karen Turner joined fellow ranchers Bill and Marge West in a lawsuit, accusing state officials of violating a section of the state constitution that requires the government to ensure the equitable use of water.
The Wyoming Supreme Court dismissed the case on a technicality in 2009, saying the ranchers had failed to link state actions to specific harms on their properties.
L.J. has submitted comments on environmental impact statements and sent pointed letters to regional newspapers peppered with phrases like “slick-chinned patter from the miners” and “Wyoming’s legislature is the best that money can buy.” He ran for state Senate on the Democratic ticket in 2006 (a Quixotic quest in deep red Wyoming), and testified before Congress in 2009. “I probably enjoy fighting with people,” he says with a smile.
“I don't think anyone cares at all about the couple little ranchers scattered around this region,” says Jenny Turner, one of the Turners’ three children, a historian who grew up on Turnercrest and now lives in Connecticut with her family.
“There is so much money sunk into these mines and these wells,” she says, that “no one wants to hear about ranchers losing water for their livestock.”
L.J. brings me to the ranch’s easternmost pasture. We gaze past a scattering of grazing cows and calves at a rainbow arching over two blast clouds, one orange, the other black. The dust is rising hundreds of feet in the air over North Antelope Rochelle, the 100-square-mile surface coal mine that sits about 10 miles from the Turners’ boundary line. The thick gray line of the open pit stretches across the horizon.
“This is the first year in a couple we’ve taken little calves over to the coal,” L.J. says. They have avoided grazing their nursing cows here since losing nearly 30 calves to “dust pneumonia,” a lung ailment caused by inhaling excessive airborne dust, but this year they needed the pasturage.
The Turners are convinced that dust from North Antelope Rochelle sickened their livestock, saying that most of the calves they’ve pastured elsewhere have typically survived weaning, while many pastured here have not. “If we have a health problem with them again,” he says, “we’ll know definitely.”
The Turners also miss the rural peace that once surrounded them, before methane flares at the oil wells lit up the night and a procession of tanker trucks began traveling the property daily. They miss the pronghorn and sage grouse that have disappeared from the ranch as dirt-and-gravel access roads, concrete drill pads, and power lines have broken up the open spaces and the coal mines have consumed the grassland.
Migrating wildlife, such as mule deer and pronghorn, “spend their summers in the mountains and spend their winters in the basins,” says Holly Copeland, a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming. “They need all that area to do well.”
Both species are sensitive to human disturbances and put a lot of distance between themselves and developed areas, so “to the extent that those are being fragmented by energy development,” she continues, “that’s putting those species at risk. The tourists love to see them, the hunters to hunt them. But they need to winter in those basins, which are at the epicenter of this development.”
Wilbert can attest firsthand that pronghorn and mule deer populations are diminishing with habitat loss. “I know as an antelope hunter myself, the total numbers are down,” she says, “and that’s reflected in the licenses given out by the fish and game department in the state.”
Advances in drilling technologies and techniques have made it possible to get at underground oil deposits that were once too deep or trapped in rock to tap—and some of this oil resides under the Turner ranch.
Like many landowners in the West, the Turners don’t own all the mineral deposits underneath their property. The federal government kept most of those rights for itself during the homesteading era, and state agencies lease them to energy developers regardless of landowners’ wishes.
The Turners admit they’ve welcomed the income from fees paid to them by oil and gas companies that gained access to their land. “The kids have been able to get a better education than we could have given them otherwise,” says L.J.
Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners advocacy group that counts the Turners among its members, scrolls through dozens of slides on her computer attesting to the environmental damage from the coal bed methane boom years.
In one photo, a dead gallery forest of cottonwood trees marches along a stream bank. They were killed when a driller pumped high-sodium groundwater down the creek. A pair of images show a large ranch pasture flooded with discharged groundwater, and then the same pasture covered with whorls of dry white dust: the salt that was left behind when the water evaporated.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council, however, does not oppose fossil fuel development. “Our goal has always been that it has to take place in a responsible manner, fairly and responsibly, with careful consideration for the property rights,” Morrison says.
A 2005 state law requires soil and gas companies to work in good faith with property owners to set terms for access to their land and take the needs of ranching operations into consideration.
Companies also must post bonds designed to encourage them to properly seal wells and restore the land once drilling ends. But with some companies operating hundreds or thousands of wells in the state, Morrison says, the bonds are too low.
When a company wants access to ranch land, property owners who want to hold their own in negotiations must hire a lawyer, Morrison notes, while possibly waiting months or years to receive any fees from the driller. “You’ve got to be really diligent,” she says, “and some people just don’t have that kind of energy and wherewithal and ability. Industry will size you up and figure that out.”
The Turners say they have paid their lawyer thousands of dollars over the years negotiating with energy companies to limit the impacts of new roads, concrete pads, and other drilling infrastructure, and to get what they consider a reasonable amount of money per acre for the land that will be affected. EOG Resources, the company that has leased the rights to the oil beneath their land, agreed to cover their legal fees as part of the contract. "This is a first," says L.J.
All the same, it's not what she signed on for when she became a rancher’s wife, says Karen, who would rather focus on breeding and tending her cows and sheep, her garden, and her home than on conducting hardball negotiations with an oil and gas company. “But I don’t want to get run over, you know?”
Retired rancher Gary Packard, another member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, agrees. “I’d like to see the landowners treated right,” Packard says. “I don’t think they understand the damages. They don’t understand how we live out here. It’s quiet. You take care of your place; you take care of your animals. We’re left alone—or we have been until all this stuff hit.”
A tall, lean 69-year-old who like L.J. Turner is a third-generation Wyoming rancher, Packard folds himself and his oxygen tank into the passenger seat of my rental car for a tour of oil and gas infrastructure sitting idle along dirt roads on his Sheridan County ranch. The property occupies 10,000 acres of rolling sagebrush-studded hills west of the Powder River, about 120 miles northwest of Turnercrest Ranch.
Packard directs me past a towering oil rig set back perhaps a quarter mile from the road, which he says appeared just past his property line a few weeks before and without any advance notice. The rig is backed by a small ridge and fronted, just steps from the road, by a plexiglass-windowed guardhouse roughly the size and shape of a tollbooth.
When I stop the car, the guards look our way. When I raise my camera to snap a photo of the company sign, one man steps out of the guardhouse, revealing the handgun tucked into a holster slung around his hips.
“No photos—move along,” the guard calls, walking toward us. He pauses when Packard yells back angrily, “I’m on my own land!”
“All right then, sir,” the guard says in an even tone, and I put the car in drive.
Packard also takes me by several concrete pads studded with pipes and short, stout, locked metal sheds that cover the wellheads, and then past a dormant wastewater treatment plant flanked by a large, empty, black-lined pit. They are some of the 21 coal bed methane wells and related infrastructure sitting unused across 4,000 acres of Packard’s ranch. In the mid-aughts, he leased the rights to drill for coal bed methane to Anadarko Petroleum. The firm built the gas wells, put in pipelines, and pumped up groundwater to release methane from the coal seam, then stopped short of producing natural gas for sale.
Meanwhile, four of five artesian water wells on his ranch failed in the wake of the groundwater pumping, Packard says, and he had to take Anadarko to court twice over damages to his land that went beyond the terms of their agreement.
That agreement also specified that Anadarko would cap the wells and restore the land when it was done, “but they just walked out” in 2012, he says, leaving them idle, and stopped monitoring them entirely in 2015. Now a company named Carbon Creek Energy owns the leases, but Packard says his lawyer has not been able to learn what the company intends for the wells.
Tom Fitzsimmons, a part owner and president of Carbon Creek who is also a member of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, expressed surprise at Packard’s complaint. According to Fitzsimmons, Carbon Creek intends to differentiate itself from the industry’s record of “terrible” relations with landowners. “Our company recognizes that when we get paid for the gas that we produce, it’s because someone on the other end is willing to pay us for the gas we produce,” he says.
But it’s also not unusual, in a bust, for smaller companies to simply vanish, Morrison notes, leaving the state on the hook for the cleanup. Firms have abandoned leases on more than 4,400 coal bed methane wells in Wyoming since 2014, compared with 511 wells in the two decades prior, according to the state oil and gas commission, which regulates the industry.
The commission estimates the cost of safely draining off any remaining gas pressure and sealing each well, removing the well pads, and restoring the land to be $5,000 to $7,000 per well. Mazza, the commission spokesperson, said an in email that the state spent just over $5.2 million to plug and reclaim 1,028 wells in 2014 and 2015 and expects to deal with another 987 by the end of this year.
Morrison’s group, however, has used state data to arrive at an estimate of $13,200 per well. A 2009 study by economists at the University of Wyoming, also relying on government data, put the price at $27,555 per well. The cost depends on the depth of the well, Morrison says. “The coal bed methane wells are relatively shallow, around 400 to 2,000 feet deep. But these conventional oil wells can be from 5,000 to 10,000 feet deep, and the pads are much bigger and they’re going to be more expensive to reclaim.”
Oil, gas, and coal companies are required by law to restore the land’s natural mix of sagebrush and grasses when they are done mining or drilling, but the process is difficult in Wyoming’s arid climate, says Wilbert, the Sierra Club official, and the pace has been slow.
“Only about 10 percent of the land that was strip-mined has been fully reclaimed,” she says. “It’s hundreds of thousands of acres that have basically been devastated, and only a few tens of thousands have been reclaimed, so there’s a lot of damage.”
One afternoon, I drive south out of Wright on Highway 59. The sagebrush-speckled prairie rolling by on either side of the highway is marked “Thunder Basin National Grasslands” on the map. But now that the Turners and Packard have educated my city dweller’s eye, I can pick out many signs of industrialization on the prairie: Small loops of oil and gas pipelines rising from the ground. Blocky, short sheds of metal or fiberglass covering natural gas wellheads, painted the color of Wyoming dirt, standing on concrete pads. Power lines march across the landscape, and occasionally the ladder-like spike of a deep oil well stands tall against the hills in the distance. Some of the roads that angle off the blacktop are marked with energy company signs, directing drivers toward an oil or gas well or a coal mine.
Returning north, I take a right onto Highway 450, still within the boundary of the national grassland. Within a few minutes, road signs are warning me to stay in my car when orange blast dust is in the air, and I’m soon at the entrance to the Black Thunder mine. A wall of gray towers over the landscape to the north, while on railroad tracks running parallel to the highway, a train moves slowly to the east, each of its 100-plus cars heaped with coal.
“You can’t look in any direction without seeing energy development. It’s not the Wild West anymore,” L.J. says.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote regarding pronghorn hunting and related game licenses in Wyoming. The correct attribution for this quote is Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Sierra Club.