Drilling The Greater Yellowstone

Cairn on Lookout Peak, Overlooking Noble Basin, Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming Range, Wyoming
This cairn is the only sign of human presence from this special place. There was no sound when I was there, no trail to the top. Future visitors will likely see a vast natural gas field, plumes of dust and smoke, industrial pollution for all of the senses.

The plan is to drill in the sub-alpine forest below the high peaks, a “Jonah In The Trees”, so says the CEO of the drilling company. First, an exploratory well, then 136 wells, complete with “improved” roads, new roads, and endless heavy truck traffic. A buried pipeline and storage facilities will be added to well pads and roads. Mule deer, migrating forty or fifty miles, will have to find their way through the new industrial complex, planned for 30 years of drilling. It’s in the Pronghorn Passage too, so part of the Grant Teton pronghorn herd will have to figure out how to make it to and from winter range. Nevermind that they’re hard-wired to travel this route for the last 6,000 years or so. Moose, beaver, lynx, wolverine, black bear, grizzly bear, Greater sage grouse, sagebrush obligate songbirds, and all of the other creatures that spend part of the year here need to find another place – but they’re running out of places to go. And so it is for the human visitors, the hikers and hunters who tread lightly and speak of this basin as one of the last real treasures in the West. Right here, in the Greater Yellowstone, on American public lands, wildlife and humans alike will be silenced by the rigs. Most will never see the massive development, tucked away from view of toilet trucks on their way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. That’s how it is here, the sacrificial landscapes are over the ridge, just out of view, where you have to go looking for them. The company line is they’re developing “clean natural gas to meet the Nation’s energy needs” and “animals just walk around the rigs.” And I guess if you like your news in soundbites and don’t care to ask questions, this “clean natural gas” seems like a great deal for the country, right? Anyone not living around Pinedale, or northwest Wyoming, or working in conservation won’t hear about the development because it’s not in the National Parks, just a basin somewhere south of Jackson, set back from the highway. But folks need to know where our public lands are developed, and oftentimes exploited, for energy. And it’s way past time that we make connections that include the places in between; places like Noble Basin.

Thanks to Hall Sawyer for this map of migration paths through Noble Basin and the Upper Hoback

Sagebrush landscapes, wildlife, and rural communities have paid a colossal price for the natural gas rush. Tiny Pinedale, Wyoming, with 1,400 people living in the Upper Green River Basin that is surrounded by three mountain ranges, has a troublesome air quality problem in winter. (A thick air inversion sat on Pinedale while we were there last week.) Sometimes the air is worse than Los Angeles. Nasty chemicals show up in water that flows from the mighty Wind River Range and pristine Wind River lakes, high above timberline, are becoming acidified from upwind air pollution. Pinedale is a wonderful little town, with a museum and monument to celebrate the mountain man rendevous’, quaint shops, a new micro-brewery, and just about everything else you could need. It’s situated so close to Bridger-Teton National Forest, BLM land, and Wyoming-sized ranches that mule deer and pronghorn migrate through town and resident moose hang out all winter. You can visit the Outdoor Shop, Ridley’s Grocery, US Forest Service Office, and the BLM office to gear up and launch a big adventure in The Wind River, Gros Ventre, or Wyoming Mountain Ranges. The people are kind and Pinedale is special for a lot of reasons.

Discussions about energy development are complicated, heated, biased, and fueled by half-truths. We certainly need the gas to feed our insatiable energy demands. With coal plants converting to gas to light metropolises, projected demand for this bridge technology will continue to grow exponentially. We can all agree that gas is part of our present and part of our future, and there are good-paying jobs in the gas patch. Wyoming never felt the recession and the state budget is operating with a surplus; deposits from the drilling boom. Conservationists acknowledge the importance of meeting the Nation’s energy needs in a responsible way.

The arrival of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) last week offered no departure from the business as usual, Drill Baby Drill policies of the Bush-Cheney years. The leases had already been sold to Houston-based Plains Exploration (PXP) and in spite of loud vocal dissent from conservationists and sportsmen, the proposed alternative is virtually the same as the PXP proposal. The opposition isn’t a cable news neo-con vs: liberal war of talking points; it’s just Westerners (including the Governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal) standing against the annihilation of yet another wild place that’s too special to drill. Public meetings are scheduled with the Forest Service and PXP, the same outfit that promised a “Jonah In The Trees.” Opposers, Citizens Protecting The Wyoming Range, Wyoming Outdoor Council and others will continue to press for answers to hard questions about migrations, recreation, Western heritage, and the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, drafted to prevent this sort of development that forever changes this place to a single-use industrial development.

Aerial view of gas development on Riley Ridge, southern Wyoming Range – Imagine this scene with 136 wells, storage, roads… The image was made with LightHawk aerial support.

Every spring and fall for more than a millenia, some of the Teton pronghorn herd travel through Noble Basin, part of the celebrated 150 mile “Pronghorn Passage”. Mule deer also migrate through the basin, a shorter migration of forty or fifty miles that isn’t talked about so much; but it’s typical of Western ungulate movements between winter and summer range. National Parks and Wilderness Areas are important for many reasons, but what about the buffer lands? What about the places in between where animals go to survive a harsh winter, a race against the clock to get enough calories to not only survive, but make it back to spring birthing grounds? We’ve invested a lot in protecting the National Pronghorn Migration Corridor, the first of its kind. For What? So we could build an industrial zone near the finish line?

The energy companies have their landscape intiatives, maps that overlay the buffer lands, migration routes, Greater sage grouse leks, the places where regular folks hike, hunt and fish, bird watch, and go to just be outdoors. These sagebrush-covered landscapes wrap around our protected, iconic mountain ranges that are becoming wilderness islands. Frankly, with so much of the West already leased for energy, it feels like we’re destined to play defense until the gas fields are played out, until a clean, fossil fuel alternative energy source is available. (Wind is an alternative that needs to be sited properly and I’ll discuss wind in future articles.) Maybe we need more people to play defense, more folks who realize that getting natural gas out of the ground is a very dirty business, that those rigs and roads sit on top of landscapes that matter, that what we do today comes with consequences tomorrow. Noble Basin may as well be Antelope Flats in Grand Teton National Park. Seriously. If they can drill here, right in the path of pronghorn, mule deer, and Westerners who stand against this land grab, they can drill anywhere. The leases can be bought back, a mistake corrected before the land is fragmented beyond repair, beyond use for anything but gas drilling. The Pinedale Anticline is already the second largest gas field in North America, and 4,400 more rigs are coming. We need to let our land managers know that this place is too special to drill and stop the Noble Basin proposed action. I’ve intentionally avoided criticism of the agencies responsible for Noble Basin. The leases were sold during the Bush-Cheney era, and it would serve no purpose to criticize individuals when we have an opportunity to stop this development.

In addition to the links provided in this article, more information, including a project timeline can be found in “Please Don’t Drill Here Part 2”.

However you feel about this project, these are your lands and you can comment to your land managers:

Electronic comments to: comments intermtn-bridger-teton-big-piney@fs.fed.us

Written comments and phone numbers:
Kurt Davis—Project Manager, Big Piney District Ranger, Bridger-Teton National Forest, 307-276-5800
Jacqueline A. Buchanan–Decision Maker, Forest Supervisor, Bridger-Teton National Forest, 307-739-5510

2 thoughts on “Drilling The Greater Yellowstone

    1. Thanks Jack. There’s so much more coming and these fields produce for 30 or 40 years. Yes, we need the energy, but some of these places are too wild, too special to drill. Whether one cares about sportsmen and recreation or not, current science about collapsing wildlife populations tells us to take a step back and consider other options.

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