Stargazer aims his scopes at gas industry

  • Perry Walker displays an analysis of a gas well completion flare on his home computer

    Noel Brenner/Pinedale Roundup
  • A well near Pinedale, Wyoming burns the chemical compounds found in fracking fluids, including sodium pentaborate decahydrate, lithium decahydrate and potassium chloride. Although new state controls on flaring took effect last July, Walker has warned Wyoming officials that flaring incidents are up.

    Perry Walker
 

Name
Perry Walker

Vocation
Astronomer, engineer

Age
61

Home Base
10-acre hilltop near Daniel, Wyoming

Known for
Keeping an eye on the air pollution caused by natural gas drillers

He says
"I can talk to these (natural gas) operators about their technology. I can understand just about anything they throw at me. And I find they appreciate that enormously. "

In 1957, most young teens in Green River, Wyo., were watching the Ed Sullivan show and coveting tail-finned cruisers. But 13-year-old Perry Walker built a telescope and began observing the night sky.

Today, Walker lives on a hilltop a hundred miles north of Green River. And he says with glee, "I have toys, the kind for big kids." His homemade telescope has been set aside for an impressive collection of techno-gear, including two sizable telescopes, a miniature spectrometer, and a night-vision spyglass.

But Walker is not just stargazing anymore. Using his big-kid toys, he spends up to five hours per night peering at the hundreds of natural gas wells in Sublette County, and at the skies overhead, where emissions and dust from the energy industry show up. He’s on a mission to limit air pollution from drilling.

"I’ve always spent a lot of time with scopes," he says. He earned college degrees in physics and nuclear engineering, and served 20 years in the Air Force, following the path of his father, a bomber pilot. In the Air Force, he learned to measure radiation, and worked on spying with long-distance radar and satellites. He retired as a major, came back to Wyoming in 1991, and bought a homesite with views of the Wind River Range and the Wyoming Range.

He voted for the pro-industry president, George W. Bush, in 2000, but his politics took a turn as the administration’s push for energy drew drillers to Sublette County. In 2003, he realized that his favorite piece of sky scenery — the Sombrero Galaxy — was growing dimmer, its colors fading, its shape less clear. And the mountain views had become hazy. "That’s what got me started looking in the direction of the industry," he says.

He began driving around at night, aiming his spectrometer at flares — the intentional burning of gas-well fumes and liquid wastes. He found that the smoke contains alkali metals, such as sodium, potassium and lithium. Working with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, he petitioned the state Department of Environmental Quality to regulate flaring, and in 2005 the agency came through (HCN, 10/31/05: Oil and gas drilling clouds the West’s air).

The industry also releases gaseous chemicals from countless storage tanks and pipes, and its trucks raise 24-hour dirt clouds. Walker monitors the atmosphere to help document those impacts. He wades through huge studies done by federal and state agencies, and hands in detailed comments on drilling proposals that get noticed by agency staffers.

Walker brought Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, up to speed on the pollution issues in a one-on-one meeting in 2004. He works with industry folks and helps them find better emission-control technology. Recently, he persuaded EnCana to test a new gas dehydrator that reduces a well’s emissions of volatile organic compounds to just 3 pounds per year, instead of the 6 tons that an older dehydrator emits.

Walker’s efforts win praise from federal scientists, the governor’s office, environmentalists and industry. "We have never perceived Perry as an enemy," says Randy Teeuwen, an EnCana spokesman. "We give him a lot of credit for being so proactive in helping us accomplish things that are good for the company and the environment."

"He’s the ideal citizen activist," says Dan Heilig, the former head of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "He shows how a single individual can make a difference."

With typical pragmatism, Walker says, "The BTU prospectors are here to stay. We can only try to modify their behavior."

The author is HCN’s Northern Rockies editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.