The terrifying yet awesome beauty of the gas patch
Contrails feather out across the hard-blue February sky, and the unforgiving light of mid-morning accentuates the bright reds, oranges, and synthetic blues of the fake flowers at the foot of scattered headstones, mostly engraved with Hispanic names. A Virgen de Guadalupe statue, hands clasped together, miniature rosary and cross hanging from her neck, stares down at the dirt, sun-cracked and blemished by not one blade of grass or weed or leaf, as though this cemetery is both meticulously cared for and utterly ignored, all at once. A constant high roar, or perhaps a hiss, drowns out the sound of my camera’s shutter click, as I’m careful not only to get the shrine in the frame, but also the condenser towers, like giant robot phalli, looming frighteningly close.
Like nearly every other acre of the landscape in this swath of northwestern New Mexico, the St. Mary’s Cemetery has been inundated by the gas patch. Its graves butt up against a big fence, just behind which are the tangle of big pipes and cooling towers that are part of Conoco-Phillips’ San Juan Gas Plant, one of a handful of similar facilities in this neighborhood of beaten down trailers, modest homes and a houseboat beached inexplicably in a plot of sand next to an arroyo.
I look around furtively before shooting another photograph, just in case someone suspects me of being a terrorist scout, casing the joint for a future attack. If questioned, I’ll tell them I’m photographing small graveyards in the region for a cultural project. But what if I were to tell the truth? What would I tell them then?
That I’m looking for glimmering shards of beauty? Here? In the gas patch?
Few places are as imbued with the energy economy, and its detritus, as San Juan County, New Mexico. This is not a sudden boomtown like, say, Williston, N.D. It’s been in a chronic state of boom and bust since the 1920s, when oil was discovered nearby. Uranium mines and mills, coal mines and massive power plants and natural gas followed. Workers and wildcatters and corporations came in droves, drilling at least 40,000 holes in the earth over time, some as deep as 14,000 feet, causing the sleepy little farming town of Farmington to balloon into a bustling, sprawling mini-city. The county’s population jumped from 18,000 in 1950 to 53,000 a decade later; today it’s around 130,000.
Energy dominates culture and economy. Streets, highways and backroads are constantly clogged with big water trucks, tire chains dangling off bumpers like medieval fashion accessories; the ubiquitous late model white pickups flying neon orange or yellow flags; and massive vehicles piled with tanks and tubes and other apparati whose function can only be guessed at. Next to the big box retail stores are big box oilfield service businesses: “Multi-Chem,” “Weatherford Fishing and Rental Tools” (no, you won’t find a lure or fly rod there), and “Oil & Gas Equipment Corp.,” which looks kind of like a suburban CVS pharmacy, except it sells 55-gallon barrels of “Oil Sponge” rather than jars of Advil. And in Farmington, nestled amongst a hodgepodge of strip malls, chain restaurants and residential areas, sits the Halliburton yard, notorious for a fracking fluid spill in 2006 that created an acidic cloud that forced the evacuation of an adjacent trailer park. A handful of other huge oilfield service companies are located, uncannily, next to the San Juan Mission cemetery, where weathered and neglected wooden crosses — many of them long since toppled — mark the graves of Christianized Navajos.
When natural gas prices plummeted, thanks to oversupply caused by the fracking boom in the East, the local economy sagged dramatically. But lasting impacts will be buffered by a limited sort of economic diversity: When one fossil fuel fades, the industry collectively turns to another. Coal is still going strong around here, for now, and recently the drill rigs and fracking trucks have revved up again, this time searching for oil, tightly embedded in the Mancos shale formation. Meanwhile, the thousands of gas wells pocking the San Juan Basin keep producing gas, and the assorted infrastructure and pipelines keep sending much of it to California, and the profits keep pouring in, just to a lesser degree.
I live on the edge of the Basin, in Durango, Colo. We like to think of ourselves as removed from the energy economy and its industrial ugliness. While Farmington and Aztec and Bloomfield live off the destruction of the land, we believe our economy is driven by the enjoyment of the beauty of that land, kept intact. Where they have oil and gas, we have “amenities” and tourism, retirees and a surplus of doctors, lawyers and raft guides.
Yet our county’s tax base relies heavily on natural gas revenues, and the county’s biggest employer is the Southern Ute Tribe, funded by energy development here and as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the concerts, art shows, bike races, and other amenities we’re famous for are sponsored by BP Amoco, which provides more than 100 high-level jobs at its Rocky Mountain headquarters near the local airport and has over 3,000 wells in the area.
Despite Durango's dependency, we've managed to confine most of the ugliness of the industry down the river. And ugly it can be: When the rigs are cranking away, the juniper- and piñon-covered mesas in the gas fields can feel like war zones, the ancient forests ripped apart by well pads and roads, massive trucks up to their axles in thick mud. The old silence is gone forever, replaced by the roar of drilling rigs and the hiss of compressor stations; and darkness of night has been replaced by ubiquitous orange sodium lights and flaring flames. The processing plants and refineries and yards where hazardous fluids are stored are invariably in neighborhoods where most of the residents are poor, and at least half are minorities. Farmington's rate of violent crime is consistently about three times the U.S. average.
So when I tell my friends that I’m drawn to Farmington and its surroundings, not just to its Sam’s Club and Target, but to its refineries and pipes and the way industry abuts nature and everyday life, they assume I’m being sarcastic, or at least somewhat ironic.
I’m not, really. Truth is, I find a sort of strange and terrible beauty in all of it. There's an honesty here, an authenticity of which my town is totally bereft. It's as though crucial components of the secret circulatory system of our hydrocarbon-driven society have been lain bare out in the desert, for all to see. This was once all the floor or shore of a shallow sea, brimming with life, the land around it fecund and lush with flora and fauna. Over millions of years, that life was converted into gas, coal, oil. Today, we can walk out onto dusty land and within a space of just a few square miles, watch, hear and feel the extraction and conversion of those fossils into the electrons that run our society. It's awesome and terrifying.
“We find ourselves simultaneously awed and disgusted; impressed and depressed ... The power of technological culture to transform nature is made manifest here in its starkest form. And yet, we do not turn away. We both rue what is no more and are smitten by what is,” writes Jonathan Maskit in 'Line of Wreckage': Towards a Postindustrial Environmental Aesthetics.
But it can be more superficial than that, as well: The gentle curves on a set of gleaming white tubes and pipes, juxtaposed against a bright blue sky, is simply beautiful. I lift my camera and push the button, the electrons doing their work.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.