NOW Home Page
Politics & Economy
Science & Health
Arts & Culture
Society & Community
TV Schedule
For Educators
Topic Index
Wyoming Map
Science and Health:
Transcript: Stripping the West
More on This Story:
Jill Morrison

BILL MOYERS: We're the most energy-consuming people on the planet, we Americans — and always hungry for more. Turning on the lights, turning up the thermostat and turning on the ignition mean burning more and more fossil fuels, the gift of the dinosaurs. We are the demand. Supplying our demand is changing the earth . . .

You see our impact here in the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming. This is the largest coal producing area in America. Fourteen mines running in a line seventy miles along the eastern edge of the basin provide one-third of all our coal. This is where the underground minerals rise to the surface — and the impact of our choices becomes clear. Below ground is energy and profit for fossil fuel companies and producers. Above is grass and dust, wind and sky, cattle and hard work. It's a way of life these ranchers inherited from the last century.

JILL MORRISON: People that live on the land, particularly here in Wyoming, very conservative, mostly Republican. But they care about the land. They care about the water. They care about the air. Those are the folks who stepped forward . . .

MOYERS: Jill Morrison is an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. They're ranchers who first fought surface mining twenty-eight years ago. Most of them thought that was the end of the struggle, because most of the coal in the basin is too deep to mine. But about five years ago, somebody figured out how to drill under the cattle pastures for the methane gas that surrounds the coal.

MORRISON: All of a sudden someone's knocking at your door and says hey, I'm coming in with a drill rig because I own the minerals beneath your property and I have the right to develop them. And sorry, sorry, it's going to turn your life upside down for the next ten or fifteen years.

MOYERS: From the time that settlers began homesteading the West, mineral rights were bought and sold separately from the surface land. By common practice and legal precedent, Wyoming ranchers who don't control their own mineral rights must give access to the oil and gas producers.

JOHN KENNEDY/KENNEDY OIL: The dominant usage here is the minerals. And producers can go in and develop the minerals with, without the consent of the surface owners. . . . The surface land owner can't exclude, the development of those minerals. So he doesn't have the right to stop that development. The minerals have - they come first in line. . . . so, that's just too bad.

BILL WEST: Each well is supposed to last, they estimate ten years, but they're still drilling more wells. It could be maybe another twenty years before, they're still drilling. So that's a long time, I think, they'll be producing on it.

MOYERS: There are 13,000 wells now in the basin, with hundreds more going up every week. Methane producers pay gas royalties to ranchers who own their own minerals and much lower surface fees to ranchers who don't.

JILL MORRISON: There's mineral owners who are making a lot of money and the surface owners who are just getting a little money, or the people who happen to be lucky enough, that small minority that owns both the mineral and the surface, who really wants the development because it is going to be a lot of money for them. So they're pitted against their neighbor who's next to them or downstream from them who's experiencing the damages.

MOYERS: Ranchers welcome the income from the deal. But they are also finding out that the drilling can quite literally cost them the ranch. The coal seams run deep under the Powder River Basin. To get the methane gas, the developer has to drill a shaft down to the coal bed and remove the water that holds the gas in place. The gas flows into a pipeline — and the water becomes a nuisance, an unwanted by product to throw away. Developers are dumping more than sixty million gallons of water a day on basin ranchlands. They call this technique "de-watering." Others call it a waste of a resource far more precious than gas.

WALT MERSCHAT: Water was gold in Wyoming. I mean, if you did anything to anybody's water rights, you know, you got in a gun battle, right? . . . Now all of a sudden we're dumping water on the surface in proportions never seen before from precipitation. Maybe 10,000 years ago during the last big glacial period . . . .

MOYERS: Walt Merschat is a geologist who has seen the damage done by coalbed methane drilling elsewhere in the West. He advises Powder River Resource Council members on what to look out for.

WALT MERSCHAT: Any vegetation lost in the field?

BILL WEST: We lost two hundred cottonwood trees and —

WALT MERSCHAT: And how old were they?

BILL WEST: Oh, up to two hundred years old, some of them.

WALT MERSCHAT: — Two-hundred-year old trees and now they die which means it's not a drought, it's got to be something different that's causing that.

MOYERS: The waste water from methane drilling is often polluted with too much salt, calcium and manganese, all of which can kill vegetation. The highly explosive methane itself also poses a risk if it vents directly to the surface.

WALT MERSCHAT: You don't go underneath there and light a cigarette do you?

BILL WEST: You can see the fire, the burnt place on the board.


WALT MERSCHAT: You did that?

BILL WEST: Yeah. We lit a match to it, it flamed up six feet.

WALT MERSCHAT: I don't think they'd get angry if you heat your house with it. I mean, there's a lot of methane coming out ---

MARGE WEST: There is a lot in there.

BILL WEST: Yeah, that would heat a house there.

WALT MERSCHAT: I heard of . . . a rancher . . . got up one morning and had eight or ten cattle dead besides one of their water tanks.

MARGE WEST: Really? . . . And you see with this water, it kills the lawn; however, without the water, the lawn turns brown anyway because it dries - dies for lack of water.

BILL WEST: It keeps it green but it won't grow.

MARGE WEST: Yeah. It's like a two-headed dragon - you know, no matter what you do, you're wrong.

WALT MERSCHAT: It isn't working.

BILL WEST: This is a desert area. This ground water they're pumping out is — when they pump it out, I think it's gone forever. I don't know how long it'll take to recharge it. We've got plenty now for stock water. But when that's gone I don't think they'll be anything left to use. . . It took thousands of years to recharge these aquifers. But they're pumping it out and in maybe ten years it will be gone. Maybe less. All of our wells have gone dry anyway.

MARGE WEST: Here they are killing our land and they keep on doing it and it's perfectly legal.

MOYERS: By government estimates, the methane under the Powder River Basin could bring $75 billion in gross sales — and a tax bonanza for the state.

WALT MERSCHAT: The politics of this state are pro-development . . And prior to the coalbed methane boom, we had economic problems. The schools didn't have enough money. We were losing people. I mean, our state population is going - going backward. We weren't getting — a lot of kids would graduate from college and immediately leave. So the - the economy was really hurting. And so now here comes this - this cash cow, coalbed methane. And all we have to do is — is just drill these shallow wells and - and throw the water away and . . . that's exactly what's going on right now. It's just easy.

MOYERS: And this is only the beginning. The majority of the mineral rights in the basin are owned by the federal government which proposes allowing 80,000 wells over the next ten years. At peak development, there will be three hundred and forty million gallons of waste water a day. According to the Bureau of Land Management's own draft environmental statement this could put sixteen new species on the endangered list . . . destroy forage for grazing animals, including cattle . . . and bring about the loss of ground water here forever.

Ed Swartz has ranched this land for fifty years.

ED SWARTZ: I'm not a scientist but this creek was never dead like this before. There was grass. There would be a little channel down through there, but the grass would be so tall that you couldn't see the channel later in the summer. And I grazed this all winter long and I've lost all the grazing out of it and left this salt deposit — this was never this way before.

ED SWARTZ: It's terrible when you have to fight for your way to make a living and people won't acknowledge that they're hurting you. And like I say, when this washes out on these meadows, you'll see that this is a pretty good alfalfa meadow here. I've got two cuttings of hay off of this thing here and anyway, . . . but if that kind of stuff washes out there I'm going to lose those meadows. What gets me is that these people will say anything.

WALT MERSCHAT: We can't destroy that much ground water and that much property and do all those detrimental things just for a half year's supply of natural gas. I mean I can't stop it, nobody can stop it. There's too much money and too much of a political picture behind this thing. But if I could stop it I'd say 'wait, let's just think about this thing and see how can we develop it and save the water and be careful about the seepage — can we do that. I think there are some things we could do but it's too tied into an easy dollar.

WALT MERSCHAT: Yeah, it's going to keep sloughing off and narrowing down your channel.

ED SWARTZ: . . . it's so discouraging. Everything I've worked for all my life and — and some guys are about to screw it up because they don't care about anybody else except how much money they can make.

MOYERS: The search for coalbed methane is cutting a broad stripe through the Rocky Mountain states, across the Gulf coast of Texas into the Deep South as far as Florida, along a Midwest arch along both sides of the Mississippi and running through the historic coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There is hardly a region untouched.

JILL MORRISON: We could easily supply this country with energy in a much more sustainable fashion, in a much more efficient way, in a much more environmentally, friendly, less damaging way. Nobody's standing up and taking, you know, as a, who has a leadership role and saying let's do it because we're motivated by greed and we've got to have it now.


Powder River Basin Resource Council
Powder River Basin Resource Council is committed to the empowerment of people through community organizing.

Powder River Basin Coal Users’ Group
The PRB Coal Users’ Group is formed to promote the safe, efficient and economic use of Powder River Basin coals by generating companies who currently use, or are considering the use of PRB coals.

Powder River Coalbed Methane Information Council
The Powder River Coalbed Methane Information Council is made up of production, gathering, and transportation companies active in the Powder River Basin.

about feedback pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
go to the full archive