TOPICS > Economy

Natural Gas Boom Impacts Rural Wyoming Town

August 22, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Every summer, the 1,600 residents of Pinedale, Wyoming, stage a three-day event called the Rendezvous. One of the highlights is a rodeo that celebrates the rich Western cow town heritage that residents, like Chopper and Lyn Grassell, say is changing too fast.

LYN GRASSELL, Pinedale Resident: When we moved here, it was ranching. It was small. You knew everybody on the street. And now it’s oil and gas. It’s a lot of oil and gas.

We were talking earlier. I think that there’s a big push from the agricultural side to keep that, keep the kids knowing how to ride horses, and come to the rodeo, and experience all that. But then you have oil and gas that’s coming in. It’s just a whole new group of people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Green River Valley of Wyoming is in the middle of a natural gas boom. Pinedale, in rural Sublette County, is ground zero. It’s where companies, like EnCana USA, have rushed to take advantage of the current energy crisis and have started a massive drilling operation in the Jonah Field, considered the richest natural gas deposit in the country.

Paul Ulrich is EnCana’s spokesman.

PAUL ULRICH, EnCana Oil and Gas: We think we’ve got about 13.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas here in the Jonah Field. That’s enough to heat America for about two-thirds of a year, you know, give or take a little bit, a lot of natural gas.

A financial boon

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tax revenues from gas have made Sublette County the second-richest per capita in the country and its teachers the highest paid in the state. Gas money is also building an $18 million pool and recreation center.

But as the rigs move closer and closer to the edge of town, lighting up the Western Sky at night, some residents say the price they're paying for the good things is too high.

LYN GRASSELL: Our school districts -- I sit on the school board, and we have an annual budget of $7 million. Well, we had an extra $25, $30 million to spend this year. So it's great for the community financially. We've never had more wealth.

But I came here when you knew everybody, and it was quiet, and it was always safe. I'd give back all the money to have it the way it was.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Once the least-populated area in the least-populated state, Sublette County has mushroomed sevenfold in just six years. Oil field workers called roughnecks have come in droves, along with support personnel, to take advantage of salaries ranging from $60,000 to $80,000 a year. That's the reason roughneck Stephen Trosclair returned to his native Wyoming.

STEPHEN TROSCLAIR, EnCana Oil and Gas: The other jobs that I worked, I always hit that ceiling of 40 hours a week. Out here, nobody is really concerned about overtime, at least during a boom. And so it's not unusual for guys to get 100 hours-plus in seven days.

Prior to that, there have been times during my marriage I've worked three, at times I think four jobs. And my wife was working from the house. And so for us, it means -- at the end of the day, it means more time with my family.

Environmental impacts

LINDA BAKER, Upper Green Valley Coalition: This place stops my heart every time I look at it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Environmentalist Linda Baker, who has lived in Pinedale for 25 years, says the onslaught of the new workers is causing problems.

LINDA BAKER: This year alone, we anticipate an additional 11,000 workers coming into Pinedale to work on the gas rigs. We're a town of 1,600 people. We don't have the infrastructure to accommodate all those folks, so they're having to go out and live in man camps and in really uncomfortable conditions, and they come into town and raise hell.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sheriff Wayne Bardin says crime is up. And for the first time, Pinedale has a drug problem: methamphetamines, a well-known stimulant.

WAYNE BARDIN, Sheriff, Sublette County: You find it everywhere. Naturally, the workforce out in the gas fields use it because they can work more hours, but then it finds its way into our schools. It's in the community, and it doesn't discriminate against anybody.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And do you have enough police officers to go after the problem?

WAYNE BARDIN: Right now, no. Just to give you a little idea of how hard it is to keep people, since 2005, January of 2005, we've gone through 35 people. And we only have a police force of 32 people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And with a shortage of police officers, even weeknights can be a problem, when the town's four bars are crowded and more disturbances are reported.

"Help Wanted" signs are all over town, not just for police officers, but for all kinds of workers.

MAYOR STEVE SMITH, Pinedale, Wyoming: There's a fine line between having enough slack in the line, if the fly's not dragging...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fly fishing guide and newly elected mayor Steve Smith says jobs are hard to fill because there is a shortage of affordable housing.

MAYOR STEVE SMITH: The prices of homes and housing and land have gone up significantly, especially in the last five or six years. That does affect people that are trying to come to this community to make a living as a school teacher, or as a deputy sheriff, or a child care specialist, or washing dishes at a local restaurant.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What used to be a quiet street where ranchers drove their cattle through town is now a busy, noisy highway.

A mile off the main road, Bruce and Mary Wolford are so fed up they've sold their log cabin on an acre and a half and are leaving.

BRUCE WOLFORD, Pinedale Resident: We've really, really liked this place. It was just perfect. A car would go by. And 20 minutes later, another car would go by. Sundays, it was absolute quiet; now, it's just pandemonium. You get motorcycles going by with the radios turned up. You get the boom, boom, boom cars going by, radio, and just one after another.

MARY WOLFORD, Pinedale Resident: And because of the gas and everything, prices have gone so high, we can hardly afford anything around here anymore.

BLM response

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And emissions from the gas fields have put smog into the air, some days covering the valley with a cloud, according to conservationist Bruce Gordon.

BRUCE GORDON, Conservationist: The skies are different. The haze and pollutions are getting exponentially magnified year after year, especially as we see this happening.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rapid development has also created problems for wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for protecting and developing public lands and which issues drilling permits, says its own surveys show thousands of pronghorn antelope, mule deer and sage grouse no longer roam here.

Dennis Stenger is the Pinedale area field director for the BLM.

DENNIS STENGER, Bureau of Land Management: There are some negative impacts, and we do know that. I mean, we have displaced some of the animals on the mesa. We've got ongoing studies out there right now, and we're looking at these issues.

DESSA DALE, Biologist, EnCana Oil and Gas: We're trying to get between 400 and 500 acres.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Biologist Dessa Dale was hired from the BLM to speed up EnCana's reclamation program. She says the company will soon be returning as much land to its original pristine state as it is drilling.

DESSA DALE: We probably have about 15 different species in here, ranging from Wyoming big sage, rabbit brush, wild onion, penstemon in here. All of these species that we have added are very beneficial to livestock and wildlife.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: EnCana says it will reduce emissions by building more rigs like this one that run on cleaner-burning natural gas and insists there is an environmental advantage to extensive drilling.

PAUL ULRICH: The quicker we can get the field drilled, the better off the wildlife are going to be, because we're not going to be moving a lot of trucks, we're not going to be moving a lot of rigs around, we're not going to have nearly as much activity.

Permits to drill

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In spite of EnCana's efforts, a growing chorus of people in Pinedale say there is still too much gas drilling going on, and they blame the rapid pace on the Bureau of Land Management. The agency has issued more than 50,000 permits to drill in Wyoming since 2000; 10,000 of those permits were granted last year alone.

Biologist Steve Belinda was so upset over the BLM's emphasis on gas development that he quit his job with the bureau earlier this year to go to work for a conservation group.

STEVE BELINDA, Biologist, Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership: I was frustrated at mostly the bureaucratic pace that we were moving on some of the issues and also the fact that we had literally prioritized oil and gas over everything else to the point where programs like wildlife and fisheries management were getting no attention.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Field office manager Stenger says his office spends about 75 percent of its time working on permits because that is the mandate from the White House.

DENNIS STENGER: The priority is to meet our national energy policy needs in this country, and we are. But in the same vein, we are working very hard to develop mitigation to reclaim the lands quicker, not make as much disturbances.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meanwhile, an unusual coalition of hunters, ranchers and environmentalists are in federal court trying to stop further development around Pinedale.