by Lynne Bama
"This is my last big fight,"
says Tom Bell. The founder of High Country News, spare and
energetic at 71, hasn't lost the fiery voice that boomed out of the
little town of Lander, Wyo., in the early 1970s. During four years
of running HCN, Bell took on not just ranchers for shooting eagles
and tight-fencing the range so that wildlife starved, but also oil
and gas drillers, uranium and coal miners, and the politicians and
bureaucrats who helped big companies ravage a landscape he
But his current preoccupation is grounded
in another, quieter side. Bell's great-grandfather came to central
Wyoming in 1868. His great-grandmother's wedding dress hangs in a
case in the Pioneer Museum, where he is historian and editor of the
county history magazine.
interest in history," he says, "has always been there." In 1966,
before the environment captured his soul, he quit teaching to write
a historical novel.
Now his concerns for the
land and for history have come together at a place called South
From the covered wagon at the entrance of
the Pioneer Museum to the top of South Pass is a scant hour's
drive. Here, where a mountain chain that stretches unbroken for
hundreds of miles to the northwest trails off into desert, the July
rangeland is blue with flowering lupine, scented with sage, and
patched with cloud shadows. To the north, the snowy peaks of the
Wind River Range rise like an impossible mirage; to the south, the
empty horizon is punctuated by the Oregon Buttes, a distinctive
formation that told pioneers they were about to enter a new life in
the Oregon Country.
Between 1843 and 1860,
nearly a third of a million West-bound immigrants passed through
this gap in the Rockies in one of the greatest voluntary migrations
in human history.
South Pass, Bell says, is the
key to the Oregon Trail. To the north, the Wind River mountains
block passage by wagon trains. And to the south lies the barren Red
"But by trailing
along the North Platte River to the Sweetwater," Bell says,
"immigrants could follow the water and grass to within a few miles
of the pass. It was the lifeline to the Northwest. Without it, the
English would have colonized the Northwest by sea long before we
After the passage of this flood of
humanity, the route was followed by stagecoaches, Pony Express
riders and the first transcontinental telegraph.
Bell says, "I can stand on South Pass and close my eyes, and hear
the hoofbeats of the Pony Express riders, the cracking of ox-team
drivers' whips, the creak of wagon wheels, the voices of women and
children." There is a personal connection as well: His
great-great-grandmother traveled over the trail in the
The pass is still one of the continent's
great lonely places, silent except for birdsong and the wind. A few
ranch buildings huddle in the willow brush by the Sweetwater River.
Although you can see modern touches from the summit - a gravel
road, an abandoned railroad grade, a distant power line - none has
marred the area's essential character.
this remote spot was rudely yanked into the late twentieth century:
A 30-inch pipeline was proposed to carry Canadian natural gas
through Wyoming by way of South Pass to one of the juiciest energy
markets in the country - Southern California.
Bell and a handful of other Wyoming people and groups were
horrified. The wagon ruts from 140 years ago are still plainly
visible on South Pass. Burying a big pipeline, the opponents say,
would create a scar that would overwhelm a place they see as
sacred. "Isn't there a part of our spirit that motivates us more
than just money?" Bell asks.
At first, there
was little reason to think that a few history buffs and
environmentalists in the nation's emptiest state (Wyoming's
population of less than 500,000 is the smallest in the country)
could stave off economic forces set in motion by its fullest state
- at last count, Californians numbered about 30 million. In the
late l980s, California was attracting pipelines out of thin air
like iron filings around a magnet.
Air pollution was the draw. During those years,
air in the Los Angeles area became so dirty California turned to
clean-burning natural gas to generate electricity. But the state's
supply was pinched by a virtual monopoly held by two giant gas
utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Gas Co.
In 1989, to boost supplies, California opened its gas
transportation markets to all comers. Pipeliners from Canada to
Texas began hitching up their wagons in a rush for California
By May 1989, at least six companies were
ready to hit the trail. Among them was the Altamont Gas
Transmission Co., whose plan was to move 719 million cubic feet of
gas per day on a 620-mile line from Wild Horse, Mont., to Muddy
Creek, in southwest Wyoming. There, it would connect with a
proposed pipeline that would run from Muddy Creek to
On a map, it looked easy: south from
the gas fields of Alberta, Canada, through Montana and Wyoming,
staying out of trouble by following existing utility corridors to
the tiny town of Lost Cabin, Wyo. From there, scooting over South
Pass to Muddy Creek, to hook up with the proposed Kern River line.
Then on to California, and Altamont's customer, Southern California
Altamont perhaps considered itself a
pioneer of sorts: Instead of following existing utility lines in
Wyoming, it would pave a new corridor over South Pass. That would
save 40 miles, and, company officials said, $40 million out of $600
Six years later, Altamont's shortcut
hasn't turned out to be so easy. The consortium's covered wagon is
mired to its hubs in court cases and sullied by persistent hints of
Evidence mounts that, at best, the
agencies responsible for the pipeline's licensing rushed through
the environmental impact statement, and, at worst, were illegally
influenced by the giant Houston, Texas, pipeliner Tenneco, which
bought a majority share in the project from the Canadians in
When Tenneco bought in, Bell believes,
"the process of prostituting existing laws and buying influence"
began. He accuses higher-ups in the Department of Interior and
Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan of improperly influencing Bureau of Land
Bell is backed in his
overall charges by an insider: Jerry Valentine, former supervisor
of the Lands and Renewable Resources staff in the Lander BLM
Resource Area - the office which administers most of the South Pass
region. Valentine has stated publicly that the environmental impact
statement was a sham.
Valentine said in 1993
that the project was "crammed down our throats' by the lead BLM
office and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), that
speed and cost had been the only considerations, and that the
public had been "consistently lied to."
been six years since the Altamont line was proposed, but no
backhoes are carving out its 620-mile-long trench, nor are welders
joining together 80-foot sections of pipe. Some delay was
procedural. But key roadblocks have been the work of an unusual
coalition of environmentalists, history groups and, to everyone's
surprise, perhaps including their own, Wyoming's natural gas
producers. And acting as the goad and impassioned voice of this
effort was Tom Bell.
soon as Bell heard about the Altamont project, he began writing to
editors, representatives and senators, federal agencies - anyone
who might help.
the waterfront," he says.
His letters got some
results. Several historical organizations, among them the National
Trust for Historic Preservation, became interested. Closer to home,
he recruited the Wyoming Outdoor Council, an environmental group he
had founded in 1967 in Lander.
Bell and his
allies hoped the federal permitting agencies would give their
concerns a fair hearing. To build a pipeline, Altamont needed a
certificate from FERC, which decides whether interstate natural gas
pipelines are in the public interest. Altamont also needed a
right-of-way permit from the BLM since the line would cross 206
miles of federal land managed by that agency, almost all in
In 1989, FERC began work on an
environmental impact statement, with BLM as one of the cooperating
agencies. Altamont wanted to get out ahead of its competition, and
FERC was cooperative. Jim Roseberry, the Wyoming BLM team leader
working out of the Worland office, says, "FERC was in a fast-track
mode, there's no doubt about it."
Bell and the
Wyoming Outdoor Council were soon getting evidence that this hurry
was creating tension among the three Wyoming BLM districts
involved. Dan Heilig, WOC's associate director, says unmarked
envelopes containing internal BLM documents were sometimes dropped
into the mail slot of WOC's Lander store-front during the night.
These and materials Bell obtained through the Freedom of
Information Act reveal that the Lander Resource Area was raising
numerous objections to the proposed route.
documents show that the Lander BLM staff believed the impact
statement was giving short shrift to wildlife, visual impacts,
reclamation difficulties in South Pass' harsh 7,000-foot
environment, and the effects of creating what would amount to a new
utility corridor. Once Altamont had led the way, Lander BLMers
wrote, other projects - and fresh scars on South Pass - would
One of the alternatives they suggested,
later known as the Jeffrey City route, simply followed the path
Altamont had been on before South Pass lured them away. It already
had utilities along 99 percent of its length, as compared to 29
percent on the South Pass route. Because it passed through the arid
Red Desert to the south, the Jeffrey City route crossed far fewer
streams. It also had better soils and did not bisect a sensitive
historic area. But it was 39 miles longer, and Altamont officials
said the extra $40 million was crucial.
"We go South Pass or we don't
go," former Altamont President Ewell Muse III
Valentine, who had worked on oil and
gas projects before, was shocked at this one. He saw his office's
advice ignored, and only after the fact heard about field trips the
lead Worland office made to South Pass. He came to suspect undue
haste or outright collusion.
Meanwhile, in the
Worland office, Wyoming team leader Jim Roseberry says he felt in
danger of being run over by FERC, whose focus was on the big
picture of competing pipelines to California. It was not interested
in routing squabbles in the boondocks. Roseberry says it was only
at the insistence of the BLM that routes other than South Pass were
even put into the document.
In May 1991, BLM state director Ray Brubaker settled the fight
among the three BLM offices the pipeline affected. According to
Valentine, Brubaker was disturbed by the way Worland had handled
the job, but ultimately decided to present a united front and back
the route over South Pass. Soon after, FERC gave Altamont a
certificate to proceed. WOC and the National Trust for Historic
Preservation immediately challenged FERC's actions. Today, four
years later, FERC has not made a final ruling on the two groups'
The pipeline's foes also stayed on top
of the BLM. They reasoned that despite the issuance of a record of
decision, perhaps Altamont's path to the top of South Pass could be
blocked if the EIS could be proved deficient.
Two years after the BLM had signed off on the South Pass route, an
important weapon came into the opponents' hands. One morning in
spring 1993, WOC staffers found, lying on the office floor, a
whistle-blower letter. The BLM's Valentine had written it to new
Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. Valentine retired shortly
thereafter, and Bell helped persuade him to write an affidavit
about what he had experienced.
emotional handwritten statement about the Lander office's thwarted
attempts to have a voice in the South Pass decision was an
eye-opener. Shortly thereafter, the controversy hit the Wyoming
With the Bush administration gone, Bell
and his allies hoped the Democrats would be less cozy with big
business. Bell had already written to Babbitt, urging him to take a
critical look at Altamont.
But the Democrats'
greenness cut both ways. President Bill Clinton, who saw natural
gas as a clean and plentiful alternative to oil, was pushing its
use. And Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, was both a friend
of Clinton and an Altamont supporter.
the insider game Altamont, FERC and the BLM had played for several
years was coming apart. Now that Valentine had gone public with his
accusations, new BLM director Jim Baca was getting pressure from
both inside and outside the department. He finally took the unusual
step of calling for a "second look" at the ElS.
This time the lead went to the Lander office, which raised all the
original objections to the South Pass route plus some new ones. But
as Lander was working on this second look, Baca was fired, leaving
no one at high Interior levels to defend the 31-page document their
staff produced. It was condensed by a team from all the affected
districts into an innocuous eight-page statement that endorsed the
original EIS. Finally, in July of 1994, BLM signed a Record of
Decision approving the South Pass route.
was furious. His hopes had been raised by the second look and then
dashed by the rewriting of the Lander office's work - work he
believed was the first look at the pipeline that followed the
intent of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Bell learned that Gov. Sullivan had met
privately with Altamont's president and then with Wyoming's new
acting BLM director before the second look was finished. He accused
Sullivan of convincing the BLM to rewrite Lander's work so it read
like the original EIS. "You sold out," he told the governor in an
open letter he says Wyoming papers refused to
While Bell may have
failed with bureaucrats and elected officials, the information he
and WOC had brought to light caught the eye of another group - the
state's independent natural gas producers. They had not taken the
Altamont project very seriously. How could the Canadians afford to
ship gas into Wyoming when the Wyoming gas men were sitting on some
of the largest gas reserves in the nation and, until 1992, getting
the lowest prices in the country?
The local gas
producers hoped to boost their prices by opening a new route to
California. So while Altamont was lumbering through its permitting
process, they had been getting the Kern River line built. It went
into service in 1992 and was now carrying some 700 million cubic
feet per day of Wyoming gas from Muddy Creek to
The Wyoming gas producers knew that
Altamont's gas had originally been destined to generate steam to
coax heavy oils out of fields in Kern County, near Bakersfield. But
by 1992 world crude prices had dropped so much that this relatively
expensive California oil could no longer compete. Although the
long-range outlook for California was bright, several lines had
already been built into the state, and it now had more natural gas
than it could use.
The Wyoming gas producers'
complacency about the likelihood of Canadian gas barreling into
their territory was reinforced in July 1992, when Altamont
announced a one-year delay "to allow market demand to solidify," as
Oil and Gas Journal put it. It was further delayed by routing
problems within Canada, and then stopped again in 1993 by the
second look. The project looked dead.
Altamont, in spring 1994, suddenly asked FERC to hurry up and
review the WOC and National Historic Trust petitions for rehearing
of its certification, Wyoming natural gas producers got a nasty
This comeback was especially hard to take
because the much-touted Kern River pipeline had not yet put them on
easy street. There was still a supply glut in California, and
Wyoming producers were discounting gas to lure customers from other
lines. "We're losing our shirts on Kern River," one producer told
an industry reporter in 1994.
Gas prices were
below rock bottom in Wyoming, and an influx of even cheaper
Canadian gas was the last thing they needed.
Where could Altamont's gas be going with the Kern River oil fields
out of the picture? Because of FERC's recent efforts to create a
free market in this fuel, the company was no longer limited by its
FERC certificate to a California market.
the old system, pipelines could only be built between a gas field
and a designated market, with the pipeline company responsible for
every transaction between the wellhead and the kitchen stoves. Now,
in an attempt to create a free and easy market such as existed in
the airline and telephone industry, pipeline companies and
wholesale customers could get together at pipeline hubs like Muddy
Creek in Wyoming to negotiate more flexible deals.
In this heady new climate, Altamont's owners
were speculating that if they built the pipeline, higher prices and
customers would come. In early March of 1994, Tenneco announced
that it and Altamont partner Entech would develop and operate a
natural gas market center at Muddy Creek, where the Altamont line
would connect with six other major pipelines, including Kern
There wasn't much room for more gas on
the pipelines out of Wyoming: Kern River could use extra
compressors to squeeze in Altamont's load, but that would squeeze
out expansion by Wyoming producers.
the free market at Muddy Creek didn't look all that free to the
Wyoming producers. Tenneco owned not only most of Altamont, but
half of the Kern River line as well.
At this point, the work the Wyoming Outdoor
Council and Bell had done paid off. WOC began to get phone calls
from industry asking what could be done to stop
Heilig, too, was reaching out. "We
were talking to everyone" who might be interested, he says. Days
before the appeals deadline, he and the Independent Petroleum
Association of Mountain States and the Wyoming Independent
Producers Association finally connected. Out of that unusual
alliance came coordinated appeals to the Interior Board of Land
The independent producers had a
different angle than the environmentalists: The producers
complained that Altamont's impact on Rocky Mountain oil- and
gas-producing communities had been ignored in the environmental
impact statement. If the project's Canadian gas were to reach the
Kern River pipeline, they feared that Wyoming wellhead prices could
drop disastrously, which in turn would shrink Wyoming's tax
revenues. "It's going to hurt the schools, it's going to hurt the
counties," says Wyoming Independent Producers' executive director
The unlikely coalition did not
fare well at Interior. The Interior Board of Land Appeals judge
recently ruled that because the independent producers were
objecting to the pipeline rather than to the route, they should
have brought their case before FERC years before. And he denied the
routing concerns WOC and the National Trust had raised, as
Altamont officials are elated by the
decision. Marketing manager Randy Courtney says, "We're real
pleased with it." The company is now looking at markets in Mexico,
where its gas could displace oil being burned in Baja power plants
whose pollution blows into the San Diego area.
Cathy Purves, Altamont environmental consultant in Lander, says the
company's opponents have been fighting their battles in the papers,
using "factual information that's been stretched and pulled to suit
According to her, South Pass'
rolling hills are a breeze compared to the mountainous terrain
other projects have traversed. "To pipeliners, this is a great
route," she says. Purves points out that the Oregon Trail ruts are
still visible on the pass only because nobody tried to revegetate
them. She asks, "If you can't tell there's a pipeline here in five
years, then what's the fuss?"
The pipeline saga isn't over yet. WOC and the
National Trust may pursue their appeals against the BLM routing
decision in federal court. They also have cases pending against the
project's FERC certification, which expires next August. Altamont
recently announced that litigation had forced them to delay
construction until 1997. That keeps South Pass safe for two
While the environmentalists and
historians pursue legal remedies, the clout of the independent
producers has affected Wyoming politics. In 1994, Sullivan paid the
price for his connection with Clinton, losing a bid for a Senate
seat. Wyoming opponents of Altamont now sit not only in the
governor's chair, but in the US. Senate and House of
Representatives. The Wyoming state legislature has also weighed in,
asking FERC to reconsider the socio-economic effects of the
project. Bell and his allies, having held off Altamont
single-handedly for years, find themselves in the odd position of
being better off under a conservative Republican than they were
The determining factor may still be
market forces. Continued low gas prices could shoot the wheels off
Altamont's wagon any time, while an energy shortage might boost the
Some industry insiders doubt Altamont
will ever be built. Spokesman John Harpole of the Independent
Petroleum Association of Mountain States notes that with the spot
price for southwest Wyoming gas at only 85 cents per thousand cubic
feet, it makes little sense for a Canadian producer to pay
transportation charges to get gas there. "I think the market is
killing Altamont," he says.
Although Wyoming is known as the Cowboy State, it has been an
energy empire, or colony, for much of this century. It has been Tom
Bell's fate, as Wyoming's leading environmentalist for decades, to
have spent much of his life fighting the forces of destruction
unleashed by the nation's appetite for BTUs.
he is in the strange position of having the market on his side. But
Bell doesn't put his faith in anything as impersonal as the price
of natural gas.
He says, "If there's any
justice, if there are any ethics left in our government, we'll
win." And one thing is certain: He will be defending his beloved
pass right up to the end.
It's a familiar role.
Twenty-two years ago he wrote in High Country News, "Sorry to say
to my detractors, so long as I live I will continue to call the
shots as I see them. I have been a maverick and a gadfly all my
life, and like many Wyomingites, I am too old to change now."
Lynne Bama lives and writes
in Wapiti, Wyoming.