Shortly before I headed home, I visited my wells. I drove up a dirt road, past a compressor station, across a cattle guard and past dozens of indistinguishable wells. I climbed a mesa and drove farther than I thought I should until I reached a gate, Tweeti Blancett’s famous locked gate, which was supposed to be closed but, she told me, would undoubtedly have been left open. It was, and only a few yards away, I found one of my wells — San-Juan 32-9, number 23. The well was drilled in 1954, soon after the El Paso pipeline went in. It looked like all the other wells I had seen — with perhaps a larger concentration of green-painted machinery because of its advanced age and declining pressure. It smelled like escaped petrocarbons. The pumping station, terraced into the hillside above the well, let out an ongoing racket, punctuated every few seconds with a disconcerting sigh. These green-painted outposts reminded me of mountain cabins where nobody is ever home; they bring a new sense of loneliness to this already-desolate spot.
Once the gas leaves my wells, it travels through larger and yet larger pipelines until it arrives at a processing plant. There are a number of them in the town of Bloomfield, about 15 miles south of my wells. Most of the plants lie in a low plain crisscrossed by a series of arroyos on the eastern edge of town, on a road known as "Plant Row," where a spaghetti-like tangle of silver and white industrial machinery and pipes plunge in and out of the yellow earth. They separate the liquids (propane and butane) and impurities (such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide) from the gas, add the familiar rotten-cabbage smell, and compress it into one of a number of three-foot pipelines that take the gas to markets east and west.
The lion’s share — about two-thirds — of the gas ends up in California, which imports 85 percent of the gas it uses and gets about a quarter of its supply from the San Juan Basin. Although Californians use far less natural gas per capita than the citizens of many other states, 40 to 50 percent of the state’s electricity currently comes from natural-gas-fired power plants, and that percentage is only expected to grow; the state has long restricted construction of dirtier coal plants within its borders. Last fall, the state also effectively barred local utilities from purchasing electricity from out-of-state coal plants; nuclear plant construction is prohibited until waste-disposal issues can be resolved; the current supply of renewables can’t come close to sating California’s energy appetite; and energy efficiency measures are predicted to meet only half of the state’s projected future demand. Which means that if we decided the environmental costs of drilling in the San Juan Basin were simply too high, and plugged my wells and all the others in the region, "You’d see a crisis, you’d see prices escalating," said David Maul, who retired as natural gas manager for the California Energy Commission last year and now works as an independent consultant.
Indeed, despite a 63 percent increase in drilling rigs between January 2003 and January 2005, U.S. natural gas production has declined by 2 percent. Half of the gas designated to meet expected demand by 2012 is still undiscovered, and the Rockies represent the single largest untapped source of methane in the U.S. The most optimistic estimate suggests that the use of renewables and energy efficiency technology would reduce our natural gas demand in the country by only 19 percent by 2020, and nobody — not even the industry’s most ardent watchdogs — denies the compelling logic of the need for San Juan Basin gas. "It’s important to remember that this is one of the most prolific natural-gas-producing basins in North America," said OGAP’s Lachelt. "It’s an important resource for our country."
And there’s the rub. They drill the gas because we use it. We could be more efficient; they could be more sensitive in their environmental practices. I could — and will — tithe 10 percent of my gas money each year to a worthy cause. But as long as our economy is structured as it is, we are all complicit in the destruction of Tweeti Blancett’s ranch. Think about it: Our most eminent climate-change activists fly on fossil-fuel-devouring jets to get to their next speaking engagements; even the highest-tech "green" trophy homes still use more energy than the smaller, inefficient houses of the previous generation; ardent environmentalists don’t hesitate to strap their mountain bikes to their roof-racks to commune with nature in Moab. "For a while I had utility stocks even as I was bitching about the burning of coal," Udall told me. "It’s a lot easier for me to speak about renewable energy now than before I bought a photovoltaic system. I am contemplating not speaking about climate change unless I got there on a bike. ... This would cut into my speaking fees and my air travel, so I continue on corruptly."
As do we all — and until that calculus changes, my wells are here to stay. As I climbed out of the basin and headed towards home, past wellhead after wellhead, I realized that the sensation I was feeling was something I could no longer call "guilt." Instead, I felt sick to my stomach. It was something about the sheer repetition, the aggregation of wells, the visible incarnation of our invisible economy, of our remorseless consumption. I realized that I felt far more culpable as a consumer than as a royalty owner. This gas field is our Hades, our underworld — the industrial reflection of our shiny lives above-ground.
Earlier, Tom Dugan, the independent gas producer with the "Nordhaus wells," had described the region when he first arrived in the 1950s. It was a place with few roads, poor grazing and little evidence of human passage. "It’s not the pristine place that it was," he told me, "but pristine doesn’t pay a hell of a lot." His justifications made me uneasy, but they were true. All of us, or at least those of us who are still on the grid, depend on his gas, and it is Dugan’s god-given — or state-given — right to profit from the land and the formations beneath it. So this stark, heartrending high desert will remain a sacrifice zone, a reminder of the Faustian bargain we all make, each time we turn on the lights.
Hannah Nordhaus is a Boulder-based freelance writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, Outside, and a number of outdoor and environmental publications.
This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.