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Thanks to the coal bed methane gas
boom, Wyoming’s Powder River Basin
is awash in money. Meanwhile, many
ranchers are struggling to keep their
heads–and their herds–above water.

Story & Photos by Richard Menzies

Earl Boardman isn’t one to go looking for trouble; indeed, he much prefers open spaces and the serenity of mother nature to the aggravations of city life. But after two water wells that service the Wyomingite’s 7,000-acre cattle ranch suddenly went dry, Boardman blew a fuse. The culprit? A methane gas drilling crew poking holes in a hillside just beyond his property line.

Alerted that Earl had gone looking for his shotgun, Johnson County Sheriff Larry Kirkpatrick stepped in to negotiate a truce. A meeting was set up, and Bill Strickler, president of Michiwest Energy Inc. of Mount Pleasant, Mich., flew out to consult with the aggrieved rancher. Michiwest offered to drill Boardman two new water wells, free of charge. They even tossed in two submersible pumps, plus free electricity for three years.

“They’re honest old boys,” Boardman concedes. “They said, ‘We’re pretty sure we dried ’em up, and it proves that we’re doing what we want to do–sucking down that water in the aquifer, and methane gas is comin’ up. Since we broke it, we’re gonna try to fix it.’ And they did.”

End of story? Not according to Boardman, who worries that the rapidly expanding coal bed methane gas boom could wreak environmental havoc in northeastern Wyoming. What will become of the aquifer should an additional 15,000 holes be punched into it? And what about all the water that comes up with the gas? Where will it go and what effect will it have on the land?

Water is the major by-product of the
extraction process. A single methane bore
can discharge 18 to 20 gallons per minute.
And strange as it may seem, dozens of
plastic pink flamingoes are appearing in
“new” waters across Wyoming.
Tom and Helen Jones, who are Boardman’s nearest neighbors, are also worried. Since 1944 the Jones family has grazed cattle in the Powder River Basin, during which time they’ve survived numerous droughts and witnessed at least 15 floods. Tom remembers one time following a three-inch cloudburst when Dead Horse Creek was running eight feet deep. He and his father had to swim their horses across the muddy torrent to get home, dodging snags and ducking debris as they went. If methane drilling continues unchecked, such adventures could become routine.

“See, we live right on the mouth of Dead Horse,” says Jones, “and all the cumulative water above us will be coming here. It would be a flood every day. If they turn it loose like the drillers in the methane company want to, why, the creek will be running 12 feet deep.”

Besides the inconvenience of being cut off from the highway and the danger of being drowned, Jones is concerned what effect so much water will have on his pastureland. “The creek bed is not designed for water the year round,” he explains. “When there’s water on it all the time, it gets real boggy. And muddy. And all the bottom land, hay meadows and stuff, will be under water.”
Earl Boardman worries that the coal bed
methane gas boom could wreak
environmental havoc in northeastern

That’s precisely what happened to rancher Ken Claybaugh’s hay fields, which lie along nearby Wild Horse Creek and downstream from as many as 45 coal bed methane wells operated by Houston-based CMS Oil and Gas. After Claybaugh complained, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered the wells shut down–until such time as the environmental consequences of pouring one and a half million gallons of water onto the ground per day can be determined.

A horse may adorn the license plates, but it’s the horsehead pump and the giant scoop shovel that more accurately symbolize contemporary Wyoming. The northeastern corner of the cowboy state is especially well endowed with mineral wealth, including oil and a hundred-foot- thick coal seam that lies about a thousand feet beneath the surface. The coal bed in turn contains methane gas, which can be tapped by rigs not unlike the ones used to drill conventional water wells. Water, in fact, is the major by-product of the extraction process–a single methane bore discharging in the neighborhood of 18 to 20 gallons per minute, or approximately 25,000 gallons per day. In Campbell County, which accounts for 95 percent of the state’s methane gas production, over a thousand such wells are currently in production–with many more on the way. Last year the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office estimated that combined coal bed methane operations will eventually extract eight trillion gallons of “product water.”

Many area ranchers view the gas boom as a blessing, especially those who own rights to whatever mineral wealth lies beneath their pastures and corrals. Over the 10-year lifetime of the average gas well, a landowner whose deed includes mineral rights can expect to reap over a hundred thousand dollars in royalty payments, and most ranches will be dotted by not one but dozens of such wells.

“It’s like Santa Claus parked his sleigh here and left his bag for us,” rancher turned driller Ron Lynde recently told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

“I welcome it with open arms,” gushed Gillette banker-rancher Mitch Maycock to the same reporter. Maycock is calculating whether the royalty income from methane wells on his property will enable him to get out of the cattle business. Others are busily laying plans to put the extra water to good use. John Flocchini, who manages the Durham Ranch, sees it as an opportunity to expand his buffalo herd; Marion and Mary Scott, operators of the P Cross Bar, are laying plans for a recreational lake; John Daly has introduced trout to his stock tanks; others have talked of starting breweries, bottled-water plants, and shrimp farms.

Personal income in Wyoming–already growing faster than in any other state–will likely grow even faster as wheat fields become golf courses, water holes become water parks, and erstwhile dry farmers trade in their tractors for water craft. However, the rising tide of prosperity won’t be lifting all boats. Ranchers without mineral rights will have to go on ranching–and filing complaints with state agencies funded by tax dollars largely collected from the deep pockets of the mining, oil, and gas companies. Instead of fat checks in the mail, they can look forward to scars on the land, convoys of heavy trucks rumbling along their access roads–and everincreasing stream flows. And, according to a draft proposal prepared by the University of Wyoming, “more wetland type plants” and an increase in “aquatic habitat.”

“Hell, I don’t blame ’em for drilling,” shrugs Earl Boardman. “They’re just here to make a profit. Make gas, ship it down the pipeline. If you wanna rape and pillage and it’s legal–why, I guess you can do it. The DEQ makes ’em run it [the water] down a stream, so all of the heavy metals wash out. So everyone downstream from the methane fields becomes the methane company’s sewer.”

Boardman wonders why gas companies operate under so few restrictions, especially in light of all the effort he’s been asked to expend to ensure that his grazing operation does no harm. In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and the federal Fish & Wildlife agency, he’s invested almost $300,000 to safeguard riparian areas. His gullies and draws are one of the few places in the West where narrow leaf plains cottonwoods can flourish without competition. Wild turkeys, deer and antelope, Hungarian partridges, prairie dogs, sage grouse, prairie falcons and owls also thrive on his spread–along with cows, which, according to Boardman, don’t require eight trillion gallons of water.

“If you have the right storage facilities and the right kind of systems, you don’t have to waste a lot of water to water a cow,” he says. “It’s all planned. You put water here, here and here, and you disperse the cattle and get ’em off the creeks and draws and so on. We spent a fortune getting water where we wanted. And every one of the places where they [the methane companies] run water down these tributaries, it’s gonna upset our riparian areas and ruin our grazing plans as we thought we should have it. Instead of drinking water up on top of the hill and staying off the lowlands, why, the cattle are gonna be down in the bottom of the draw wading in the bog, drinking the water, and they’re never going to the top of the hill. So it doesn’t exactly help our rotation system and our grazing plan.”

Boardman also worries that all the new five-inch diameter wells will render the old ones obsolete. In the old days, he explains, “you would drill a small bore hole and stab a piece of two-inch pipe down there, and it bubbles out of the ground forever. But the problem with Wyoming water law, it only guarantees water–not pressure. So if something dries up that well, so it doesn’t flow anymore, they haven’t violated your water rights. But because it’s a two-inch pipe–which all of these thousands of wells are–you can’t put a pump in. So they’ve ruined your well.”

Most worrisome of all: no one seems to know just how much water is in the Powder River Basin aquifer, how it got there, or how long it might take to recharge itself. Boardman believes it’s high time everyone involved in the methane gas boom pauses to take a deeper look.

“I guess we can’t see the hand in front of our face,” he says. “But the short term effect is the discharge water–one helluva mess. And the other is the roads and hills and locations and stuff. And once they’re gone, the country will heal itself, and someday, 50 years after they pull out, another generation might notice a change in the contour of the land. And the tributaries will probably be growing grass again, except for those that are completely alkalined out from the salt water.

“But nobody knows if there’ll be any water or not. That’s something that you can’t see, and it’s not an immediate effect.”

Richard Menzies is a writer for RANGE and a former lifeguard. This story made him wonder whether Wyoming might become “The Crawdad State” and replace its bucking bronco logo with a cowboy astride a bucking crustacean. He says he had “nothing to do with the pink plastic flamingo” on page 66 (yet this is the guy who photographed himself in a Clinton mask to write about Grand Staircase Escalante).


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