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Know the West

Clean fuel, dirty neighbors


We should be a little grateful this time around.

The West's last energy boom threatened the region with mountains of spent oil shale, huge pits from which the rock had been taken, air pollution from coal gasification plants, and large ditches carrying Columbia River water into the Colorado River Basin.

This latest energy boom is only drowning parts of Wyoming under eroding, land-poisoning water, turning significant swatches of rural and quasi-suburban Colorado and New Mexico into industrial sites, and making bystanders and property owners miserable for a few decades.

The villain this time isn't coal and oil shale and electric power plants. It's the nation's cleanest fossil fuel: methane. But while the gas burns cleanly, and is the least harmful fossil fuel when it comes to global warming, it wreaks havoc at the production end. By comparison with methane extraction, the fires that burned through the West this summer were merciful. The fires were over quickly, and those affected could view themselves as in the grip of a powerful but impersonal force.

The damage done by methane wells is the result of human action by a powerful, predatory industry. Its leaders say they are defenders of property rights. But the only property rights they defend are their own. They use their political and economic power to trample on the property rights of their neighbors (if that word accurately describes those whose land you are occupying).

Without too much of a stretch, you might even say that what the gas industry does is nothing less than a "takings" of private property.

The gas industry agrees that there is hypocrisy abroad in the West, but it sees itself as victim. Industry spokesmen say its opponents are two-faced because everyone depends on natural gas. People who heat with gas or use plastics made of natural gas, they argue, should understand why drill rigs must poke holes in the earth.

The argument would be credible if the choice were between the present approach to methane extraction and freezing in the dark. But methane can be extracted with less disturbance than at present. Many wells can be drilled from a single drill pad, and water brought to the surface can be put back into the aquifer from which it was removed.

Life in the gas fields won't be perfect, but it can be better. As the stories in this issue show, the move to prevent the industry from continuing to take and damage large amounts of public and private property is gaining momentum. The push for reform is furthest along in Colorado, thanks to the fact that real estate values have been forced up in rural parts of the state, in part by sprawling development. But, where residential sprawl does not constitute a competing force, reform lags and landowners and wildlife suffer.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.