Stargazer aims his scopes at gas industry

 
In 1957, most young teens in Green River, Wyo., were watching the Ed Sullivan show and coveting tail-finned cruisers. But 13-year-old Perry Walker built a telescope and began observing the night sky.



Name
Perry Walker

Vocation
Astronomer, engineer

Age
61

Home Base
10-acre hilltop near Daniel, Wyoming

Known for
Keeping an eye on the air pollution caused by natural gas drillers

He says
"I can talk to these (natural gas) operators about their technology. I can understand just about anything they throw at me. And I find they appreciate that enormously. "

Today, Walker lives on a hilltop a hundred miles north of Green River. And he says with glee, "I have toys, the kind for big kids." His homemade telescope has been set aside for an impressive collection of techno-gear, including two sizable telescopes, a miniature spectrometer, and a night-vision spyglass.

But Walker is not just stargazing anymore. Using his big-kid toys, he spends up to five hours per night peering at the hundreds of natural gas wells in Sublette County, and at the skies overhead, where emissions and dust from the energy industry show up. He’s on a mission to limit air pollution from drilling.

"I’ve always spent a lot of time with scopes," he says. He earned college degrees in physics and nuclear engineering, and served 20 years in the Air Force, following the path of his father, a bomber pilot. In the Air Force, he learned to measure radiation, and worked on spying with long-distance radar and satellites. He retired as a major, came back to Wyoming in 1991, and bought a homesite with views of the Wind River Range and the Wyoming Range.

He voted for the pro-industry president, George W. Bush, in 2000, but his politics took a turn as the administration’s push for energy drew drillers to Sublette County. In 2003, he realized that his favorite piece of sky scenery — the Sombrero Galaxy — was growing dimmer, its colors fading, its shape less clear. And the mountain views had become hazy. "That’s what got me started looking in the direction of the industry," he says.

He began driving around at night, aiming his spectrometer at flares — the intentional burning of gas-well fumes and liquid wastes. He found that the smoke contains alkali metals, such as sodium, potassium and lithium. Working with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, he petitioned the state Department of Environmental Quality to regulate flaring, and in 2005 the agency came through (HCN, 10/31/05: Oil and gas drilling clouds the West’s air).

The industry also releases gaseous chemicals from countless storage tanks and pipes, and its trucks raise 24-hour dirt clouds. Walker monitors the atmosphere to help document those impacts. He wades through huge studies done by federal and state agencies, and hands in detailed comments on drilling proposals that get noticed by agency staffers.

Walker brought Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, up to speed on the pollution issues in a one-on-one meeting in 2004. He works with industry folks and helps them find better emission-control technology. Recently, he persuaded EnCana to test a new gas dehydrator that reduces a well’s emissions of volatile organic compounds to just 3 pounds per year, instead of the 6 tons that an older dehydrator emits.

Walker’s efforts win praise from federal scientists, the governor’s office, environmentalists and industry. "We have never perceived Perry as an enemy," says Randy Teeuwen, an EnCana spokesman. "We give him a lot of credit for being so proactive in helping us accomplish things that are good for the company and the environment."

"He’s the ideal citizen activist," says Dan Heilig, the former head of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "He shows how a single individual can make a difference."

With typical pragmatism, Walker says, "The BTU prospectors are here to stay. We can only try to modify their behavior."

The author is HCN’s Northern Rockies editor.