Powder River Basin flyover & farm visit

Wyoming and the Powder River Basin is the location of many of those iconic scenes in Gasland that show the coal seam gas fields as a spider web of devastation spreading out across the landscape. We saw a hint on the flight out of Dallas.Light-plane-Gillette-300x169I remember the new perspective I got when I chartered a light plane to fly over the Hunter Valley last year so what better way to get some perspective of the Powder River Basin then to fly over it.

From the airport itself you can see two coal mines and a power station so as we took off to the south out of Gillette we were straight into the action so to speak.

There is a lot of coal coming out of the basin, much more than the Hunter Valley (it is a much larger area) and it must be much closer to the surface because the overburden is significantly less then seems the norm in Australia. It is a little more dispersed and doesn’t quite seem like one big line of coal mines as it does in the Hunter, but it is still a significant impact on the local environment and many of the mines are close to populated areas.

As for the coal seam gas, those water ponds that Jill Morrison took us to the day before are everywhere. Most don’t have water in at the moment but when they did it must have been a sight. The ponds stand out more than the wells themselves because the dirt of the well pads match with the vegetation. I think we needed to fly higher to get a shot like the ones from Gasland.

Either way, the impact is immense and widespread. As one of the others in our party said when we landed, “if you want to destroy the environment, that’s how to do it.”

Jill Morrison was there to meet us when we landed. She wanted us to meet a couple about 40 minutes drive North. Bill and Marge West run a 10,000 acre cattle and dry land wheat ranch. Quite a few years ago they agreed to 100 wells and associated infrastructure on their land so I hoped that would have a useful story to tell about their relationship with the company and the impacts on their land. They did.

We arrived in the middle of summer following an unseasonably warm winter. With a failing alfalfa (lucerne) crop Bill was turning his wheat into hay for the cattle over winter. I would not have thought this country could sustain a dry land crop but with the annual snow melt, Bill seemed to have made it work and it looked as we passed the golden rolling hills of wheat that he was about half way through bailing.

With the party of ten herded into the living room and a video camera on him it took Bill a little while to get going but he started about telling us how he had been promised endless water by the gas company when they first wanted to come on but that amounted to nothing.Bill-and-Marges-lounge-room-300x174

Bill had artesian water on his property before the gas but that stopped flowing soon after the gas started. Bill used to take water from the top of the coal seam aquifer itself – it wasn’t the best water, but it was usable he said. Although the gas company put down a new water well to 1,300 feet that water is salty so has to be put through reverse osmosis before it is usable.

They had had a little emergency a few weeks earlier when the gas company that had taken over the gas field on their property once the big guys sold out had failed to pay their electricity bill. The local power company turned off the electricity which was the same system running the pumps that delivered water to his cattle. The power is back on for Bill now but he doesn’t know what will happen with the wells. He expects the company will go bankrupt at some stage. Bill said it will cost about $30,000 to decommission each well on his property. With 100 wells that is $3 million. He knows the company doesn’t have it and the bonds they paid to the government won’t cover it either.

There is a small creek, that runs through Bill’s property. It is dry most of the time in summer but runs with the snow melt after icing over in winter. The original gas company’s practice was to run produced water straight into system. You can see the impacts as you come into the property as weed infest the small plain either side of the creek. The water has killed off native species and changed the nutrient levels. The good native pastures his cattle used to rely on are gone and there are deed patches along the system. At another spot on the property Bill says hundreds of big cottonwood trees have died from the produced water. Bill got compensation for the loss, but is that the point?

My policy advisor Justin Field asked Bill if he thought it was worth it. Bill responded ”yes, we made a lot of money, but that’ all gone now.” It seemed more face saving then real. Justin asked Marge the same question in the car later as we drove around to look at the property. She had been sitting next to Bill when he answered earlier in the house. Her response: “no way, I wouldn’t do it again. They’ve wrecked our land.”

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