“Exploring Personal Loss & Coal Bed Methane”
by Hal Herring,
April 7, 2005, newwest.net
Â The Powder River Country of Wyoming and Montana is extreme fly-over territory, encompassing 11 million acres of sagebrush-steppe and coulee country, watered intermittently by snowmelt from the peaks of the Bighorns, collecting in the rivers of western legend, Crazy Woman Creek, the Little Powder, the Belle Fourche and the Powder itself.
It’s mostly a dry country and what water there, away from these trickle-rivers, is alkali. Only the most radically independent and the hardest of hardscrabble ranchers have ever called it home, which means that there is still plenty of room here for the wildlife and birds that have been diminished in other parts of the West. The stars shine in a night sky unsullied by electric light or air pollution; the land is windswept and holds a kind of ancient silence that almost everywhere else has long been broken.
But the noise has come to the Powder River, the road graders and dozers and drilling rigs, all coming for the coal bed methane gas that underlies the landscape. The cattle and sheep booms of the last century gouged the face of the country some, and the range fights and Indian wars often watered it with the blood of men, but the methane boom stands to change the region permanently, first by intensively roading it, then more profoundly still, by draining out an aquifer of water that is probably centuries old, the remnant of some long gone and rainier epoch.
Marianne Zugel, a filmmaker working with Missoula’s High Plains Films, has produced and directed Powder River Country, a documentary that explores the coal bed methane boom and its effect on the ranchers and the land and water of the region. Zugel is working here on the model pioneered by High Plains Films’ founder Doug Hawes-Davis with an eccentric soundtrack juxtaposed to action shots of drilling rigs and heavy equipment and aerial footage of wastewater ponds and gas development scattershot into what used to be empty rangeland. The power of the High Plains model, and the power here, is the human voice. The interviews with locals describe the process of gaswell development: a well drilling rig first penetrates the coal seam, then a pump is lowered into the bore, and the water is pumped out, releasing the valuable methane, which is then collected for sale. The water is mostly pumped into holding ponds, full of saline with the promise that it will destroy croplands if used for irrigation.
Astronomical figures arise here: 20,000 wells currently operating, removing enough water to cover 250,000 football fields one foot deep. “The aquifer will not recover within the lifetime of anyone now living in Wyoming,” says one resident. In fact, a company spokesman says, no one has any idea when or if it will ever recover. People living near the developments—within a mile or two—can expect to have their wells go dry. They know that much by hard experience.
Anyone living in the West today needs to understand the coal bed methane process, and Zugel’s film is a wonderful and accessible place to begin, low on irritating didactics, long on humanity and the lessons that real people, facing a time of voracious change, have to offer. “I’d like to think that people won’t come in here and destroy the place and then leave,” said Marilynn Connolly, a Buffalo County Commissioner, “but they might…”
The film does not delve deeply into the tragedies of the split estate, where ranchers own the surface, but the mineral rights below are leased to the highest bidder, and it never touches on Section 29, the ridiculous subsidy that drives so much of the methane development seen here. But it strikes to a different core, one of loss. “The Powder River Basin used to be one of the most isolated places in the western US,” says resident Mickey Steward. “Now there is no place that is far from anywhere else. To me, that is the essence of coal bed methane.”
That loss belongs to all of us, the loss of the idea that somewhere over the urban horizon there is an empty place, ruled by nature’s time, where someday we can go if man’s time becomes too much for us to take. What does that mean? Zugel’s film is a good place to begin contemplating that question.