Powder River Basin, Wyoming – Part 1
The Powder River Basin, which extends from Southeast Montana through the North East and to the centre of Wyoming is well known for its coal deposits.
About 360 million tonnes of coal is taken from this area, 40% of US demand. The basin supplies coal to about 35 power stations with only a few of these being within the basin itself.
The basin is also the 3rd biggest unconventional gas resource within the United States with the same coal seams being targeted. This industry has only developed within the last decade with over 25,000 wells having been drilled.
I have largely relied on Wikipedia for these statistics but it is interesting to see that the ‘Powder River Basin’ page has no reference to the region long and proud agricultural history of the region.
With such a history of resource extraction and like the Hunter Valley a seemingly insatiable appetite for resource extraction it is little wonder that the community started to organise to protect themselves from the development at all costs approach that seemed to have taken hold here.
As we were arriving in Gillette at the Northern end of the basin the Powder River Resource Council was meeting. Among other things the council was set up for the “conservation of Wyoming’s unique land, mineral, and clean air resources consistent with responsible use of those resources to sustain the livelihood of present and future generations.” Our friend John Fenton is the Vice Chair of the council and has made the three hour trek north for a board meeting.
Our contact is Jill Morrison. Jill has been campaigning to protect this region for years and she has spent more time then most organising the community around resource issues. Jill takes us on a two-hour drives through the coal seam gas field that the Powder River Basin has become.
Our first spot is a produced water pond but it is empty. Jill explains that much of the gas infrastructure is sitting idle across the basin waiting for the gas price to go back up. Several small companies she explains bought assets being sold off by the majors once the price went south and have now gone bust leaving old wells in the ground without the money to decommission.
We were surprised to see a produced water pond unlined but Jill explained this is the norm. Most of the produced water in the Power River Basin is simply ponded and allowed to evaporate to leech back down into the ground or is often allowed to be simply run out over the landscape and into the streams that eventually make their way into the Power River itself. The main concern to Jill is the salt content of the water. She says the salt acts to ‘cement’ the landscape making the soil hard packed which leaves it lifeless. You can see that in the landscape.
As we continue south it becomes evident that what has happened here is a full-scale industrialization of the landscape as well heads, compressor stations start to pop up all over the place. The compressor stations are major pieces of industrial infrastructure, taking up many acres with multiple high-powered engines and large cooling systems. Again maybe on one in three of the compressors is running, showing just how much the gas price has impacted this industry.
Something we haven’t noticed before is the electricity demand of the wells. Because this was a largely undeveloped area except for dispersed ranches, an electricity grid has been installed across the basin to power the pumps at each well. Jill told us that three 15MW gas fired power stations and a large coal fired power station had been built just to meet the power needs of the gas industry. Add to this the thousands of kilometres of new transmission and distribution lines criss crossing the landscape now and it is hard to see just how this industry is a ‘clean green’ transition fuel in any sense of the word.
Driving over the Powder River itself it becomes clear just what the impact of releasing millions of litres of produced water into the landscape has done. A salty crust can be seen along the edge of the bank above the water line of the river. Jill tells us that wasn’t there before the drilling started.
At the end of the day we meet Eric and Kelly Barlow. They are cattle and sheep ranchers. Eric’s family that have lived in this area for generations. They put on a spread like you wouldn’t believe with most of the food out of the home garden Eric’s mother maintains. Eric is a Republican and is standing for the state legislature later this year. Eric has been tough with the gas company, with quite a big property they have wanted to get on his land to drill but he is still discussing access terms.
It is not like Eric is against gas or resource extraction full-stop, he has an oil well near the entrance to his property. But for Eric the question is about a precautionary approach to resource development. He doesn’t support development for development sake and the boom bust approach of the gas to date is not a good model. He uses terms like the precautionary principle and responsible mining to explain his vision for the basin. He doesn’t want to see the long-term agricultural values of the region lost for a quick buck in coal seam gas. It seems I have a lot in common with this republican from Wyoming.
Driving out that night just after sun down we crest the hill above Kelly and Eric’s place and are greeted not by the beautiful vista of rolling hills in the evening light but by lights that look like a dispersed city with every like a beacon between a dozen compressor stations each a suburb of its own. We stop for a second to hear the peace and tranquility of what seems like a thousand whirring motors that surround us.
This is coal seam gas.