HCN's founder fights his last fight, yet again

  • Altamont's proposed gas pipeline on the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail

    Diane Sylvain
  • The Chronicler of the West reaches quarter-century milestone

    Diane Sylvain
  • Wagon ruts 100 years old on South Pass in Wyoming

    HCN file photo
  • Natural gas pipeline

    Idaho Commerce Department
  • Wagons traveling in rough areas left deep cuts that still remain

    HCN staff photo
  • "First white women" to cross South Pass were wives of ministers

    HCN file photo
  • Immigrants continued to travel Oregon Trail until 1900

    Wyoming Travel Commission

"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 loved.

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.

"My 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 Pass.

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 Desert.

"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 could have."

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 1850s.

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.

In 1989, 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 gold.

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 California.

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 Gas Co.

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 million.

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 scandal.

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 1991.

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 Management decisions.

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."

It has 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.

As soon as Bell heard about the Altamont project, he began writing to editors, representatives and senators, federal agencies - anyone who might help.

"I covered 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 Wyoming.

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.

The 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 follow.

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 insisted.

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' appeal.

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.

Valentine's 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 papers.

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.

However, 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.

Bell 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 print.

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 California.

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.

So when 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 shock.

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.

Under 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 River.

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.

Moreover, 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 Altamont.

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 Appeals.

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 Karen Kennedy.

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 well.

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 their purposes."

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 years.

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 before.

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 project.

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.

Now 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.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Tom Bell calls the Altamont pipeline "a disgraceful example of government integrity gone awry."

- Is Altamont historic, too?

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