Where can we say ‘Yes’ to oil and gas?

What we give up in so-called sacrifice zones.

Kaye Fissinger collects Don Quixote. I met the diminutive 70-year-old at her home in a quiet subdivision of Longmont, Colorado. Amid memorabilia from her work in musical theater, black-and-white portraits and an eye-popping snapshot of her body-builder daughter, the man of La Mancha stared from prints and paintings, posed in wooden statuettes and porcelain figurines.

“Why Quixote?” I asked.

 

She regarded me over gold-rimmed glasses, a smile quirking her mouth. “Because he tilts at windmills,” she said.

In a way, so does Fissinger, but hers are the oil-drilling rigs that have popped up lately in her area. She looked computer-tired, clad in a white turtleneck, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She led me upstairs to a cluttered home office, cleared a stack of documents from a chair and urged me to sit. When she came here from L.A. in 2006, she explained, she was worried about the separation of church and state.

She didn’t yet realize that the plains further to the northeast were pin-cushioned with tens of thousands of wells, many of them hydraulically fractured, or fracked — a process that involves firing water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground at incomprehensible pressures — or that the boom had intensified in recent years.

Then one day in 2011, an automated phone survey asked her an odd question: How would she feel if drilling took place on Longmont open space? “Radar, radar!” she exclaimed. A company, it turned out, had proposed drilling around a local reservoir. The more she learned, the more she worried. She thought of her great-grandkids. A lung cancer survivor, she thought of her respiratory health. She thought about the flat lot near her house that might be a perfect place for a rig.

And in 2012, she helped found the nonprofit Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which spearheaded a ballot initiative that made the city the first in Colorado to ban fracking. The next fall, despite industry’s expensive counter-campaign, several other Front Range communities followed suit. Places across the West and the country have also joined in, from rural Mora County, New Mexico, in 2013, to, most recently and significantly, the state of New York, which overlays a booming shale gas formation.

Though many bans face long odds in court — Longmont’s and others have already been shot down and are headed for appeals — activists and local officials keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Fissinger told me emphatically. “Fracking is a toxic, extreme energy extraction method. I don’t think it can be made safe.”

The prospect of a drill rig towering over one’s home would terrify just about anyone, me included. But I still felt conflicted: A near-term transition from oil and gas is profoundly unlikely. Natural gas is slowly supplanting coal as a primary electricity-generating fuel. Petroleum runs our planes, trains and automobiles. Both make it into a dizzying array of plastics and personal care products.

The corporate machine of hydrocarbon development contains a ghost. And the ghost in that machine is us. Until that changes, every fracking ban — Longmont’s, Mora County’s, New York’s — no matter how heroic and justified, simply pushes drilling somewhere else. I wanted to know: Where are we saying yes to such development, and how can we say it in a way that lessens impacts on landscapes and people?

I had one hunch. To see if it bore out, I rented a red Chevy Cruze, filled the tank, and got behind the wheel. “Remaining Oil Life: 97%” blinked on the dash. How appropriate, I thought, and drove west, toward Energy Country. 

 

Bill Barrett Corp. agreed not to drill wilderness-quality lands in and around Utah’s Desolation Canyon in exchange for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s agreement not to sue over hundreds of gas wells the company planned to drill nearby and farther west.
EcoFlight

I wasn’t the only lone driver headed into the mountains on I-70; hundreds of us sped along in Subarus, Tacomas and other sporty rigs — Colorado cockroaches, we call them — likely bound for the outdoor meccas around the Continental Divide. But once the resort bedroom community of Glenwood Springs was in my rearview, traffic thinned. The tiny Cruze wobbled in the wake of scattered semis ferrying goods. Compressor stations and natural gas well pads lined the roadsides. Not far west of the Colorado-Utah line, I pulled off at the exit for Danish Flat. There, amid eerie silence, was a vast complex of plastic-lined ponds: The final resting place for the waste from the drilling operations I had passed in western Colorado.

In their 2003 report, What Every Westerner Should Know About Energy, historian Patty Limerick and her colleagues observe that there seems to be nowhere left to put energy infrastructure without a fight. “We have run out,” they wrote, “of unloved and unlovely places.” Clearly they weren’t talking about this spot, I thought, peering across the chain-link fence at the stagnant water and plugging my nose.

To the northwest, exploding from the flat expanse of weed-scattered earth, the Book Cliffs looked like a better example of a lovely, loved place. Beyond their rims stretch great swaths of unbroken piñon-juniper forest that eventually give way to sun-etched canyons pouring into the Green River where it wends through Desolation and Gray canyons. About 6,000 boaters annually ply an 84-mile stretch of whitewater through their remote depths. For years, the hardline Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, based in Salt Lake City, has fought development that threatened these and millions of other acres of wilderness-quality land.

And yet, in 2010, SUWA essentially said yes to hundreds of gas wells that a company called Bill Barrett Corp. had proposed on the West Tavaputs Plateau not far west of Desolation Canyon. By doing so, SUWA wasn’t caving. It was allowing inevitable development to go forward in a way that was least harmful to landscapes it wanted to protect. It was also making a sort of tradeoff.

On a sunny October day, I hitched a ride to the top of the plateau with Bureau of Land Management Price Field Office Manager Ahmed Mohsen to see what SUWA got in return. “Isn’t this pretty?” Mohsen said as we gazed from one of the field’s well pads on a finger of mesa top into a red-rock fissure called Jack Canyon. A wilderness study area, it feeds into the much larger Desolation Canyon wilderness study area that encloses a stretch of the river’s west flank. The promontory we stood on was part of Horse Bench, an unroaded sagebrush mesa sweeping to the northeast, backed by a pastel layer cake of buttes. On a primitive road at the field’s edge, I found black bear tracks threaded along the tire marks of an oilfield services pickup.

Bill Barrett Corp. drilled gas wells in the Nine Mile Canyon area.
EcoFlight

Bill Barrett had legal right to drill in all three places, and had proposed nearly 240 wellpads there. But it relinquished plans for all but a half-dozen of those, sparing some 65,000 acres of wilderness quality land, in exchange for SUWA’s agreement not to sue to delay the entire project, most of which sprawls farther from the canyon to the west. The cluster of remaining wellpads that Mohsen showed me that day were near historic wellpads that the company has since reoccupied, and their infrastructure was set out of sight below ground, with seasonal restrictions on drilling to avoid disturbing boaters. Jarring as the naked scrapes of earth were, they clearly beat the alternative.

The deal — the largest of a handful of similar compromises SUWA has since made — seemed like a win-win from here. It also openly made the judgment implied in every fracking ban: Some places are more valuable than others. “Part of the thinking was to push development back to stay next to existing development, and that way limit new roads, new intrusions, new infrastructure,” SUWA attorney David Garbett had told me earlier. Because the group’s focus is on wilderness protection, from its perspective, “once oil and gas is a use in an area, it’s the dominant use. It’s already a sacrifice zone.”

That’s not an unusual sentiment among conservationists working on oil and gas issues, particularly in politically conservative states: With limited resources, many opt for triage, focusing on protecting superlatively beautiful places or intact islands of important wildlife habitat — just as the Fissingers of the world work to protect their communities — while actively or tacitly accepting development in other places. That same compass of reasoning suggested I might find what I had come for in the gray area between the two, in places already drilled enough that more could be tolerated. And it pointed due north from West Tavaputs, to the massive oil and gas fields at the heart of the Uinta Basin.

As I pulled down the main drag toward my hotel in Vernal, Utah, a sign for a juice bar and camo seat-cover shop popped into view: “I ♡ DRILLING!”

Perhaps, I thought, “tolerated” is the wrong word.

 

George Burnett, owner of Covers and Camo in Vernal, holds a sign outside in support of the oil boom that has made Vernal the nation’s sixth-fastest-growing “micropolitan area” of 10,000 to 50,000 people.
AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Francisco Kjolseth

On a chilly night the weekend before Halloween, I visited the Pumpkin Festival in Jensen, southeast of Vernal. Hundreds of young families — many pregnant or toting infants or both — milled around a circuit of jack-o-lantern dioramas and a giant pallet fire while an old-time band strummed sweet-sounding harmonies. I felt on edge as I lined up for a cheeseburger: Could they tell I hailed from Boulder, Colorado, an epicenter of anti-fracking sentiment? I had heard stories of public meetings here where the mere suggestion of limiting drilling incited virtual riots. But a teenage girl in a Nirvana T-shirt, with ratted hair and a face painted like a sugar skull, offered me a shy smile along with my food.

I sat down at a picnic table next to a woman named Ellen Mecham, who pointed out her father picking a guitar at the far end of the bandstand. She wore dark eye makeup and her hair in stiff black spikes and bounced a fussy granddaughter in her lap. She grew up in the nearby town of Gusher, she told me: “Lots of time outside, not much TV.” All three of her brothers work in the oil fields; her mother, sitting across from her, also counted a son-in-law. Nearly everyone I spoke to said the same: Multiple members, multiple generations. Hydrocarbons run deep here: in the ground and in the blood of the people.

Below our feet stretched the same geologic treasure trove that contains West Tavaputs’ gas. The Uinta Basin has tar sands, oil shale, even obsidian-esque gilsonite, used in inks and drilling fluids. Natural gas and oil have been produced here for decades. The bulk of that development — more than 10,000 active wells — is concentrated several miles southwest of Jensen and Vernal in the central part of the basin, in an area informally called The Fairway. What’s another 1,000, even 10,000, wells in a place like that?

That Saturday, Mike Stiewig, who oversees much of the development as BLM’s Vernal Field Office manager, drove me through The Fairway’s west side. I could see what SUWA’s Garbett meant: A web of connecting roads and dozens of densely spaced pumpjacks, tanks and wellpads stretched to the horizon across dun-colored grass, amid plumes of dust kicked up by service trucks. Each pumpjack’s engine blatted with backfires, accumulating into a low frequency thrum like a swarm of approaching bees. Whatever might have been lost here looked like it was already long gone.

Stiewig showed me the Monument Butte field, where one company hopes to drill over 5,000 new wells, more than half likely from the wellpads of thousands it already operates. It’s basically infill, like when new homes and businesses are built within a dense urban core instead of leapfrogging across old farmland as far-flung suburbs. “The appearance wouldn’t really change much,” Stiewig explained, except for one thing: “It would pretty much just be lonely pumpjacks. All those tanks would go away.” Instead of being stored on individual well pads, oil and other fluids would be pumped through bundles of black piping to giant centralized plants where off-gassing chemicals are much easier to contain. These thousands of individual, widely scattered tanks are, it turns out, a major source of air pollution, as are the trucks required to service them.

Well pads dot the landscape in Utah’s Uinta Basin.
Michael Collier

If all the companies developing here adopted similarly stringent controls, as they increasingly must under Utah’s and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s tightening air quality rules, then perhaps the basin really can sustain the more than 25,000 new wells projected in the coming decades. I tried to picture their sprawl: the perfect place to drill, colonized to the max. But the scale was so mind-bogglingly vast that I couldn’t help but doubt the premise of my trip.

The fact that controls like those in Monument Butte even exist in such a rural part of Utah is evidence that development is already hitting some very real limits. When wintertime inversions seal oilpatch pollutants into the valley like a giant Tupperware lid, ozone levels here spike well beyond federal limits designed to protect human health. The gas can harm healthy lungs and exacerbate existing respiratory problems. Some of the primary chemicals that contribute to its formation, called volatile organic compounds — including benzene, a potent carcinogen — also collect in the valley’s communities at high-enough concentrations to warrant further scrutiny. But thanks in part to a lack of year-round monitoring and comprehensive studies, the health risks they pose remain mysterious. It leaves some residents wondering, especially given reports of birth defects, increased infant mortality and other weird health problems near drilling sites here and elsewhere.

The day before I left the Uinta Basin, I went back to Jensen to visit a curmudgeonly river rat named Herm Hoops. Oar blades engraved with the names of the rapids that broke them from their shafts decorated his garage; rare books on historic river expeditions shared shelf space with volumes by Mary Oliver and Ellen Meloy in his living room. Stocky and boisterous with a full beard, Hoops regaled me with tales of many trips down Desolation, including one that involved hiking dozens of miles overland back to civilization after getting stuck in an ice jam early in the year.

“There are nights when we can’t sleep with the windows open,” Hoops told me. Hydrogen sulfide gas pools around the house, pouring in from an old oil field and complex of waste evaporation ponds down the road. He gave me directions to see more; there are about 160 such ponds in the basin, each adding its own chemical vapors to the hazy air. A bitter cold west wind kicked up while we spoke; when I stepped out the door, the smell of rotten eggs slammed me in the face. I headed south, then southwest, descending through scrub-topped benches and knobs of painted earth, all of it dotted with gas wells. In the distance beyond, the Green River carved toward Desolation. From here, the land between looked no less lovely, no less worthy of protection. “There’s enough drilling here,” Hoops had told me. “If you want a sacrifice zone, move it to Boulder. Let’s have big money fight big money and see who comes out the winner.”

 

A neighborhood in Erie, on Colorado’s Front Range near Boulder, backs up to a well pad.
Evan Anderman

And so it was that my quest led me back home. As I drove down I-25 toward Longmont and Boulder, ranchland and sporadic cornfields gave way to new subdivisions, and soon enough, the giant scaffolds of drill rigs came into view, towering over car dealerships, strip malls and houses, with the massive pyramidal bulk of Long’s Peak looming to the west on the Front Range skyline. I looked at the dash: “Remaining Oil Life: 74%.” Perhaps Hoops was right, I thought. If we’re worried about peoples’ health and welfare, and if we truly value the wilder parts of the world, then our wealthy and bustling suburbs and cities are exactly where we should be drilling. Not because anyone deserves the accompanying nightmares, but because no one does.

Drilling was going strong in the West’s rural oil and gas basins long before fractivists like Fissinger began fighting, long before fracking was a household word. But companies have figured out how to develop much more of our energy domestically, tapping giant, once-marginal reserves and drilling more wells at a faster pace to maintain production. As drilling has reached more densely populated areas in the West, or rural areas not far from places like New York City, oil and gas development has at last begun grabbing regular national media coverage. And vastly more people have been forced to directly confront the costs of something they’ve always used freely.

That awareness is already having an impact, inspiring reams of new research into how development affects air, groundwater, health, economies and more. It’s helped spur both federal and state governments to begin reining in an industry that had long enjoyed a regulatory carte blanche. Colorado, arguably the Western focus of this clash, is widely regarded as a leader, though its rules are hardly perfect. Over the past several years, the state has moved to better protect wildlife, force disclosure of jealously guarded fracking fluid chemicals, increase setbacks from homes, and require companies to test nearby groundwater before and after drilling. Most notably, last winter it passed strict industry air pollution controls that are the first in the nation that aim to curtail releases of methane, the primary component of natural gas that also happens to be a potent greenhouse gas.

“It’s sort of like in forestry,” Pete Morton, a Boulder-based economist with the Conservation Economics Institute who served with The Wilderness Society for 18 years, told me over breakfast at Hotel Boulderado. The sound of jazzy music and clinking flatware wafted over the mostly empty tables as a hard rain fell outside. “They used to put in the beauty strip to hide the clear-cut. What we’ve done is cut down the beauty strip on oil and gas. Now we have all these eyes on industry.” And some companies are clearly paying attention. When Colorado officials rolled out those new air measures, they did so alongside representatives from three of the state’s major operators, Noble Energy, Anadarko Petroleum and Encana, which worked collaboratively with the pragmatic environmental group Environmental Defense Fund and the state to help develop the proposal.

More significant, though, is what this new awareness may do to galvanize action around the root cause of the problem: our own energy use. As Patty Limerick told me before I embarked on my journey, those same suburbs railing against drilling were enabled by the availability of cheap gasoline. “We live,” Limerick said, “in the era of improbable comfort made possible by a taken-for-granted but truly astonishing infrastructure. Now that we have peoples’ attention, maybe this production-consumption thing can get thought about.”

There are signs that this is beginning to happen on a scale that transcends a few solar homes and plug-in vehicles, Morton told me. Liberal Boulder, often dismissed as the ultimate Not-In-My-Back-Yard community, is trying to become its own electrical utility in order to reshape its power supply around renewable sources balanced by natural gas. As part of that effort, a working group that includes Morton is looking at how the city might use its buying power to influence the way that gas is extracted by adopting environmental certification standards not unlike those developed for the sustainable timber industry. Someday, Boulder might replace natural gas entirely with biogas, generated perhaps by excess manure from Greeley, a former cowtown ironically positioned in the midst of Colorado’s oil boom.

A waste pit at Danish Flat in eastern Utah.
Sarah Gilman

Little of this comforts fractivists like Fissinger, who worry that regulations are a cynical political ploy that will only encourage people to embrace a dangerous and inherently unsustainable status quo. And indeed, whatever you believe about the risks of fracking and horizontal drilling, the techniques have ensured that scarcity won’t be the crisis that weans us off hydrocarbons in time to avert the worst effects of climate change. No matter how completely we might mitigate drilling’s local impacts, no matter how carefully we protect special places, near or far, oil and gas development's ultimate externality, global climate change, still looms.

It’s a conundrum that demands the “ideal future” that Yi-Fu Tuan envisioned in Topophilia, his seminal 1974 work on cultural geography. A future wherein we give our deepest loyalties to home — the place we love beyond all others, Tuan writes, the shelter of memory and family — and “at the other end of the scale, to the whole earth.”

And therein lies the true power of the hardliners’ “no.” “The reality is that we’re not going to flip a switch tomorrow and everything’s OK,” acknowledged Jeremy Nichols of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which hopes to leverage anti-fracking energy to influence public-land battles over oil and gas in the absence of higher-level climate policy. “But I don’t want to say, ‘(development) is OK here.’ Some of it is going to happen whether I say yes or not. If no one points out the costs or says no, there’s really not going to be incentive for anyone to develop something different. Crisis fuels innovation and invention and creates opportunities.” In other words, “no” can squeeze us toward an acceptable “yes.” And expanding development is giving us a bigger, more widespread NO than, perhaps, we’ve ever heard before — a “no” that seems to hint at genuine change.

With the rise of fractivism, “you have people who were never involved in these issues before, and they’re moving the goal posts 200 yards down the field,” Morton said as he polished off his eggs benedict. “I think it’s the rebirth of the environmental movement.”

On a clear November Saturday, Vic’s Coffee in north Boulder buzzed with hip 20- and 30-somethings grabbing late-morning lattes and pastries. Petroleum geologist Matt Silverman, a fit 61 years old with salt-and-pepper hair and a tidy mustache, blended in surprisingly well, lounging on the sunny patio. He led me to his SUV, apologized as he moved some yoga equipment, then ushered me into the front seat.

A little ways northeast of town, we pulled off the road at a barbed-wire fence. Beyond it, at the center of a wedge-shaped plot of rib-high grass with a clear view of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons, was an ancient-looking pumpjack and tank coated in chipping green paint and rust. This is the McKenzie #1-21 — the first producing, and the last remaining, well from a 200-well oil field that has since been replaced by city open space and stately homes. The equipment is from the ’50s, Silverman explained, but the McKenzie was drilled in 1902 and produced until the 2000s. This was the first field in the basin that is now booming to the northeast, and helped establish Denver as the energy capital of the Rocky Mountain region, he said. “Let’s not turn our back on any of our history. Let’s recognize all of it.”

I looked past the pumpjack at the three buzzing highways hemming us in, planes floating into the nearby municipal airport, and, to the south, the boxy complex of National Center for Atmospheric Research offices where scientists study climate change. If the McKenzie is a monument, I thought, does it celebrate all that hydrocarbons have given us and, as Silverman argues, provide a lesson that the scars of their extraction are fleeting? Or could it become a memorial to a world that we no longer want — a reminder that, if we push hard enough, this history could someday be just that, the past and nothing more?

Sarah Gilman is a deeply ambivalent hydrocarbon addict, freelance writer and High Country News contributing editor now based in Portland, Oregon. She served as the magazine’s associate editor for six years.  

This story was originally titled "Sacrifice Zone" in the print edition.