In the Wyoming of Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Proulx, the landscape is inseparable from the people whose lives these writers so vividly describe. It defines their days and their characters; it instills a kind of pride in them, that they withstand its rigors day after day and still get on with their lives. Continuing to see the staggering beauty of this terrain and its weather is no small feat for someone who is daily subject to its brutality.
In the last few years, seeing its beauty has often been a considerable challenge of its own. In Pinedale, a town in the sparsely populated Upper Green River Basin about sixty miles southeast of Jackson Hole, the smog has surpassed at times the worst that Los Angeles suffers. It obscures the hundred-mile vistas, causes runny eyes and nosebleeds and shortness of breath, and forces people who place a high value on enjoying their rugged land to stay indoors.
Smog is a product of excessive ozone pollution, and in Pinedale the ozone is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a gas well-drilling procedure that has transformed this area from a pristine near-wilderness to a major industrial installation. The extreme smog forms in winter, when temperature inversions cause the cold air at ground level, together with its load of pollutants, to be trapped by a warmer layer above it. The pollutants in this case are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which create ozone in the presence of sunlight.
The Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a standard for ozone pollution that allows a maximum of 75 parts per billion. Even that level is considered by many scientists and public health officials to be inadequate to protect public health. But in recent winters the levels in Pinedale have often measured nearly twice that, triggering ozone alerts and endangering the health of children, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions. And ruining the famous views.
Such ozone levels are virtually unheard of in rural areas, let alone the Upper Green, which until recently could claim some of the purest documented air in the world. Its latest claim to fame is quite different: it’s now one of the top gas-producing areas in the U.S. Its two big gas fields, the Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field, which extend some 30 miles south of Pinedale, contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas between two and three miles underground. There are already several thousand wells operating in Sublette County alone, with thousands more planned. The expansion is occurring much more rapidly than originally anticipated, which means the environmental reviews that were approved beforehand were entirely inadequate for the project as it has unfolded.
The drilling rigs themselves, the associated truck traffic, maintenance, and flaring – the burning of impurities that remain in the well after drilling – all contribute to the stew. Following alarmingly high ozone levels in 2005, 2006, and 2008, the state required emissions to be reduced before new drilling permits would be issued.1 Gas companies have responded by reducing truck traffic and changing over to drilling rigs that run on natural gas instead of diesel, or that have pollution control equipment. By their own reckoning, emissions are down by as much as 25% since then. Yet ozone levels continue to spike to alarming heights, and ozone alerts have been issued several times in 2009 and 2011. Health professionals declare residents to be at risk of premature death from respiratory causes,2 and the American Lung Association has given Sublette County an ozone grade of F.3 But it doesn’t take fancy instruments to show the smog is still there.
Groundwater has been severely impacted by drilling too. Since drilling first began, wells have been contaminated with hydrocarbons, making the water unfit and dangerous for either humans or livestock. In some cases, high levels of methane actually make the water flammable. The industry enjoys exemption from compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to a loophole created by the Bush administration in 2005.
It isn’t only the human residents of the region who suffer. The Upper Green is the southernmost portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and hosts the migration of various species of big game, raptors, and innumerable songbirds. It is prime habitat for the sage grouse, the game bird with the spectacular mating display, which is being considered for endangered species status. It contains the winter range for some of the world’s largest herds of mule deer and pronghorn, connecting alpine summer ranges in the surrounding mountains, and enabling herds to maintain genetic diversity.
The winter range is supposed to be off limits to drilling while the herds are present, but requests for exceptions are routinely granted. One crucial spot along the migratory route – Trappers Point, which has hosted the annual pronghorn migration for over 6000 years – becomes a critical bottleneck when the herds pass through. Already barely wide enough to allow the herds to pass through safely and willingly, it would become impassable with the siting of additional wells there. The Upper Green River Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society have been instrumental in protecting portions of this corridor, but other sections continue to be threatened by future development.4, 5
In fact drilling in the Upper Green will be greatly expanded in the next several years. One company, Encana Oil & Gas, is planning to develop up to 3500 additional gas wells near the Jonah Field in the next ten years, in a massive project known to some as “Son of Jonah.” This project would be more than four times the size of the Jonah Field, and would impact an immense stretch of wildlife habitat, as well as contribute enormously to the ozone problem.
Due in part to the economic benefits of gas development – Wyoming’s unemployment rate is a relatively low 6.4%, and the state budget currently enjoys an enviable surplus – oversight by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for leasing the land, has been lax, and the enforcement of regulations has been weak. Numbers of overwintering deer and pronghorn have plummeted, alpine lakes nearby have seen increased acidification (see the Thoreau page), and air quality and views as far away as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks continue to deteriorate.
In July 2011 the EPA, responding to a growing clamor from citizens, proposed new rules that would require the capture of most VOCs, as well as reducing emissions of methane (the most potent of the greenhouse gases) and airborne toxics (which are associated with cancer, birth defects, and reproductive failure). These rules would potentially go a long way toward mitigating some of the effects of massive drilling. Perhaps enforcement will be rigorous enough to bring real improvements. But it will likely require more clamor – lots more. It would be a sad business if the challenges of living in this remarkable landscape got separated from the extraordinary rewards.
1 Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “Interim Policy on Demonstration of Compliance with WAQSR Chapter 6, Section 2©(ii) for Sources in Sublette County.” 21 July 2008. http://www.wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/html/what_we_do/air_quality/pdfs/DEQ%20Offsets%20Policy.pdf
2 Jerrett, Michael; Burnett, Richard T.; Pope, C. Arden III; et al. “Long-Term Ozone Exposure and Mortality.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2009: 360, pp. 1085-95.
3 American Lung Association. http://www.stateoftheair.org/2011/states/wyoming/sublette-56035.html
4 Upper Green River Alliance. “Protecting Our Precious Wildlife.” http://www.uppergreen.org/protecting-wildlife.html
5 Wildlife Conservation Society. "Pronghorn." http://www.wcs.org/saving-wildlife/hoofed-mammals/pronghorn.aspx