When the young Theodore Roosevelt went West to become a cattle rancher in the late 1800s, he was impressed by the flint of the Western character. In his travels through South Dakota and the Rocky Mountains, he met mountain men and cowboys and Indians so independent and strong-willed that even the robuster-than-robust Roosevelt confessed he sometimes felt inadequate.
Today, watching some Westerners prostrate
themselves to the Bush administration as it encourages energy
companies to devastate the most delicate of our lands, I have to
wonder what has happened to the Western character.
guess is that if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today, he would have
a fit over what they are doing to the Powder River Basin and the
Red Desert in what can only be called the Great Orgy to drill for
the gas we know as coalbed methane. And then he would have fought
it with every fiber in his body.
The good news is that
some Westerners still have that spirit and aren't about to see the
glory of their mountains and deserts sacrificed at the altar of
cheap energy. If you haven't heard of coalbed methane, you're
missing one of the great struggles in the short history of the
American West. The Rocky Mountains are loaded with natural gas
trapped in underground coal beds, and President Bush has told the
secretary of the Interior to let the energy companies get at it as
fast as they can.
Once taken out of the ground, the
methane is wonderful stuff. It's clean-burning and in high demand
by heavy industry and power generating companies. It's also used
for heating and cooling houses. But getting it out of the ground is
hell on those public lands that are still wild and intact, it's a
nightmare to private landowners, and catastrophic to ground and
First, a road has to be built. Then a hole
up to 5,000 feet deep is sunk into the ground, and water by the
tens of thousands of gallons is sucked out of the aquifer to free
the gas. Each well takes about four acres; once it's in operation,
you're left with the 24-hour noise of pumps and compressors and
daily truck trips.
It's hard to say which part of the
development is worse. The roads cut wildlife habitat to ribbons.
Extracting salty water from the deep aquifers and bringing it to
the surface ruins good soils and clean sources of surface water. An
area that was once a wild meadow or prairie now looks like an
The extensive plans to develop coalbed
methane in the Rocky Mountain West should truly give you a scare if
you care a whit about this land. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah,
and New Mexico are all being drilled, and the Bush administration
has plans to develop tens of thousands of wells in the next few
The Powder River Basin, in northern Wyoming and
southern Montana, gives a preview. Energy companies have drilled
over 10,000 wells there, and by 2010 that number may climb to
80,000 wells. Companies now are pumping close to two billion
gallons of water per day to the surface.
have reached their tipping point. All around the Rocky Mountain
West, the rush to drill the best ranchlands and prime wildlife
habitat is creating new alliances. Not so long ago here in Colorado
or Wyoming or Montana or New Mexico, you wouldn't have found
ranchers working with backpackers on what to do about the
despoiling of land and water. You wouldn't have found an
ex-petroleum engineer and a liberal Boulder lawyer sharing their
outrage at a spineless public-land manager.
barriers have broken down because of a shared conviction that what
makes the West magnificent is worth fighting for -- and is far more
important than the old differences.
If Westerners don't
take a strong stand right now, energy companies will leave the
finest parts of the Rocky Mountain states an unrecognizable mess of
roads, settling ponds, contaminated water and splintered
I believe that Theodore Roosevelt would have been
heartbroken to see what energy companies are already doing to his
beloved West. And then he would have acted. He was above all a
reformer who shaped his life around one of his own aphorisms: "The
things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price...and
the get-rich-quick theory of life."
Westerners fighting to
keep coalbed methane from spoiling it all say the same thing: What
can destroy the West is cheap energy at any price.