New Wild West: The price of Bush's drive for energy

Amid the remote and rugged beauty of Wyoming, a sleepy Old West town has burst back into life as energy companies flock to drill for oil and gas. Many residents fear their quiet life has gone for ever. By Andrew Buncombe
Click to follow
The Independent US

Two eggs over easy. Dry wheat toast. No coffee, just iced water. A half order of french toast. A stack of pancakes with syrup.

Fast and furious, Billy Pape has been cooking breakfast orders at his diner for the best part of 50 years. When he opened the Patio Grill in Pinedale in 1959, his was the only business in this old Wild West town that did not shut down for Wyoming's harsh, six-month winter.

From his vantage point on Main Street, he has seen the town's fortunes wax and wane over the years, the swinging pendulum of prosperity as regular a fixture as the old-timers who perch on his counter stools every day and drink their morning coffee from brown china mugs.

But the boom that is gripping this town now may be different to anything that Mr Pape, 72, has seen before. Over the past couple of years, Pinedale has enjoyed an extraordinary boost from gas drilling that has boosted businesses and filled the coffers of the local authority with millions of dollars in tax revenues.

At the same time, the pace of the drilling on the sagebrush mesas outside Pinedale has worried environmentalists and longtime residents who fear their small-town life is being changed for ever. In 21st century Pinedale, there are more people, there is crime, there are drugs and house prices are going through the roof.

At this rate, say the locals with some trepidation, Pinedale is going to become like Jackson, the bustling ski and tourism resort 90 minutes to the north. "Jackson is just a tourist trap," says Mr Pape, whose custom has been boosted by the gas-drillers, or "roughnecks", who come in for their meals. "The whole atmosphere has changed, the people have changed. Jackson used to be a small town like Pinedale. I would hate Pinedale to become another Jackson but you can't stop prosperity. There is a lot of money coming in."

Pinedale, and many other communities in the western United States, is booming because of the energy policies of President George Bush, specifically, his willingness to turn over public land and previously protected open spaces to his friends and allies in the oil and gas business.

As a result, in small and dusty cowpoke towns in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, there has been an unprecedented burst of oil and gas drilling on sagebrush mesas and badlands owned by the federal government. In the past year alone, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has awarded 5,700 new drilling permits in these states, an increase of more than 62 per cent on the previous year. Many observers say the only factor limiting even more rapid growth is simply the matter of how quickly energy companies can put together drilling crews.

Of all these communities, Pinedale, encircled by mountains and with a museum dedicated to the history of the mountain man, is at the front line in what is the biggest natural gas boom since the Second World War. The dry highlands on the outskirts of town are now scarred by gas pumps and drilling derricks, by bull-dozers clearing new access roads across the hillsides and filled by the dust of huge, heavy trucks carrying pipes and pipe-laying equipment that carry the gas to power plants which light up California and other western states.

And this community also represents the front line in the ongoing struggle over growth versus conservation and in the question as to what price the Bush administration - and the US public - is prepared to pay for the ongoing reliance on fossil fuel.

The immediate benefits to Pinedale are obvious. Sublette County, of which Pinedale in the county seat, has just 6,000 residents yet enjoys an annual budget of $47m (£25.8m) and 96 per cent of that is gas revenues. A courthouse is being built in Pinedale, there is already a new seniors' centre, an ice-hockey rink, an agricultural centre and an indoor Olympic-sized swimming pool. The town of just 1,500 people has more than a dozen hotels and motels - an 80-room development opened last week - yet it is often hard to find a bed because of block-booking by the energy companies.

"It's really booming," says Peggy Maw, manager of the Teton Court Motel where a clean but very basic room now costs more than $90. "I've been here seven years and in the winter we'd usually have an occupancy rate of 5 to 20 per cent. This last winter I'd say it was closer to 85 per cent."

At the Bottoms Up Brewpub, which brews what may be among the finest pints in the US, a pale ale called Buckin' Bitter, trade has soared by 30 per cent. On Friday nights there is standing room only in a bar packed with out-of-town roughnecks and, as at other restaurants and businesses, general manager Bob Kansch has struggled to recruit enough staff.

"There have been booms before here," he says. "You just make what you can when it's happening and rein things in after it's gone." Ranchers, who originally made this part of the West famous, say they have been saved by the boom. This part of Wyoming has always offered the toughest of challenges to those living off the land: in winter the temperature can stay below zero for weeks on end and the snow that arrives in November often does not clear until May. The temperature, the elevation and the poor soil means agricultural crops are not viable and farmers will only get one harvest a year of forage crops and hay.

But now ranchers can lease land to the energy companies. "Most of the ranches around here have gas and let me tell you it has saved all of us, at least those who own full estate," says Tim Thompson, whose fifth-generation farm has 400 head of cattle and nine gas wells. "We would have lost the ranch otherwise, what with how beef prices have been."

Yet many residents are worried about the pace of growth and the short-term nature of the boost. House prices are soaring, drug crime is rising and there is a threat to their gently paced life, beneath a vast, panoramic sky that at night fills with millions of stars. This week, the local paper, the Pinedale Roundup, which says it is the US newspaper published furthest from any railway line, carried letters and columns expressing concern about the fast pace of development

"The US national energy policy is being played out on an epic scale in our back yard," says Ward Wise, a former Pinedale official and a member of the school board.

"All of a sudden, our little rural town has come face to face with the hurricane force of the global energy market. The trouble is, the national energy policy is doing nothing to curb consumption; there is no balance. Without a balance, you are going to destroy the quality of life."

Linda Baker is an organiser of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, a group of local people trying to control the gas development and encourage the dozen of so major companies, such as Shell, BP and others, to use the best environmental management techniques. She works from an office above a wood-fronted hotel that dates from the early 1900s.

"Of course, the shop-owners like the boom," she said. "But there are also people who have lived here all their lives, in a town where business was done with a shake of the hand, in a town where the grocery store and the post office were focal points of the community. They are concerned about what is happening. When people say hello to each other on the street they don't just say 'Hello' they say "Hello Joe". They know their neighbours."

Pinedale is in north-west Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley, a watercourse known to the native Indians as Seeds-Ke-Dee-Agie. Surrounded by a crescent of permanently snow-capped mountains, and south of what is now the Yellowstone National Park, this area was settled in the early 19th century and steadily developed as a trapping and trading outpost. Beavers are still common on the fresh mountain streams that tumble down from the magical Wind River Mountains.

In 1837, Alfred Jacob Miller, one of the most famous artists of the early West, stopped with other pioneers on the shores of Fremont Lake, five miles outside Pinedale, and produced one of the better known romanticised paintings of the landscape. Today, Fremont Lake is among the most popular summer tourist destinations in the region.

Energy companies have known since the 1950s that the mesa outside Pinedale had huge supplies of natural gas but only in the past 10 years have technological advances made drilling for the gas commercially viable.

Given the declining production of natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico and western Canada, Wyoming and other parts of the West are becoming ever more important. The present price of natural gas - about $8 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs) is three times what it was in the 1990s.

But there is more to the mesa than natural gas. Environmentalists say the high sagebrush that seems to stretch for ever is part of the longest big-game migratory route in North America, a 500-mile round trip journey for pronghorn antelope and mule deer which move between their summer pasture grounds in Yellowstone and their winter home in the southern Wyoming deserts. Federal wildlife officials say more studies are required to assess what impact, if any, the drilling has had on these animal populations but some people here say the animals have been driven away by the human activity.

Rod and Leslie Rozier look out across the sagebrush and stand in awe as they breathe in the landscape from the windows of the homestead they have built on their 1,000-acre ranch on the edge of Pinedale. A trout stream passes feet from their home where they have seen beaver and otters, and the scrub beyond is home to elk. In a stand of nearby cottonwood trees, a bald eagle has built its nest.

But now when they look out their eyes are increasingly drawn to the drilling towers and pumps on the mountainside opposite. "It's all relative," says Mr Rozier, a member of the environmentalists' coalition. "It's still a wonderful place and it depends on your definition of pristine as to whether this is still pristine, but it is rapidly experiencing many changes and many pressures."

He says development of the mesa, as well as affecting the wildlife and their migration routes, has affected air and light quality. "I'm not against development but does it need to happen this quickly?" he says. "Why can't we slow the pace? Development has consequences. These are changes that will affect the infrastructure. There is so much gas, so much money. You could have it all. Why develop it in a rush. Why not go a little bit slower, with a little more care?"

Back at the Patio Grill, Billy Pape says he is now in semi-retirement, having passed the business to one of his sons. Still, every day he comes into help with the breakfast and lunch crowds, maintaining an eye on what is happening to his town. "There is a bottom to every barrel," he says. "Sometime, you're going to get to the bottom."

Comments