Monday, August 3, 2009

After the boom became a bust

Four and a half years ago, oil company executives negotiated for drilling rights at our dining room table. We are ranchers with some mineral rights and the drilling clamor was well underway in the West. Talk turned to the future, and they suggested our 19-year-old son postpone college. "Buy him a backhoe!" they urged.

We remembered the last boom, which ended with a bang, not a whimper, on May 2, 1982. We were herding our own sheep, moving toddlers from winter desert to summer high country, while all around us, drilling dominated the local economy.

Today, we have grown children and are fighting the fight to stay on the ranch established six generations ago. Oil and gas has long been a part of our Wyoming community. In recent years, it again swept everything before it.

When we moved a sheep camp or checked our desert cows, semis and tankers swarmed the roads. Backcountry vistas were dotted with drilling rigs. Beer cans lined highways and two-tracks alike, and formed pyramids outside the man camps which sprang up to house new workers.

This boom, we were assured — everyone in the oil patch was assured — would last 50, 70, 100 years. Young people found jobs, found a future at home. They did not have to migrate to faraway places and long for the mountains, for the West's open spaces.

Ranchers who had struggled with up-and-down commodity prices turned their hand to providing services and property to energy companies, bringing in welcome capital. Families with long-dormant mineral rights found land men appearing at their door and checks appearing in the mail. Drilling rigs came in, one semi-truck following another, like ducks, filling the horizons with tall metal structures that looked as permanent as the Eiffel Tower.

Our communities morphed from generally sleepy burgs to boomtowns. Employers couldn't find workers to serve the huge increase in demand. Tiny towns like Wamsutter, Wyo., population formerly 261, suddenly transformed from a gas stop on Interstate 80 to a center for the new oil economy.

Semis exiting at Wamsutter's one exchange backed up onto the interstate, seeking transit to the energy fields to the north and south.

In the meantime, those of us who live and work on this landscape tried to adjust, tried to understand this massive shift. Our ranching operation leads us, and our animals, from the mountainous high country in the summer months to the sagebrush country of the desert in the winter months. This long trail covers some 150 miles, spring and fall, across a broad countryside — the same countryside that boiled with energy development.

We found mudpots erupting in the coalbed methane fields. These mudpots, we were instructed by both the BLM and our state government, had always been there. Institutional memories of ranchers, trappers, recreationists held no weight.

Wildlife such as deer and elk, antelope and sage grouse, found their lives changed as well. Suddenly they found roads, dust, invasive weeds. Big game species met not only people and activity. They found poachers, who, unlike local hunters, shot at them with sudden and inexplicable impunity, sometimes leaving their heads mounted obscenely on rocks and brush.

All this activity, which was indeed providing much-needed energy to the nation, profoundly impacted the landscape. Reclamation is mandated by law, but was not happening. Pipelines, roads, well sites — all showed a moonscape of bare ground, or worse, a garden of invasive weeds, especially halogeton, poisonous to livestock.

The companies were trying, but they were hindered by drought, by inexperience. They found regulators who counted an attempt as success. Successful reclamation is the exception, not the rule.

Into this situation, oil prices dropped precipitously. It turned out that oil prices had been driven artificially high by speculation. When the economy imploded, so did oil prices.

The effect on our communities throughout the oil patch is not positive. Folks who had invested in heavy equipment, in building new housing, who had taken truck-driving jobs, found that the boom had busted. Young men and women with high-paying jobs found themselves unemployed. My cousin, who recently bought the ranch adjoining his, found his water trucks idle.

Those of us who live and work and recreate in the West's open spaces are left with a radically changed economy and culture, and a radically disturbed landscape. Now what? We still need energy and we still need a healthy landscape.

Our son? He is graduating with a degree in environment and natural resources. He plans to work with us in the landscape reclamation business.

Sharon Salisbury O'Toole is a rancher, writer and poet from the Little Snake River Valley, near Savery, Wyo. She and her family raise cattle, sheep, dogs, horses and children on their sixth-generation ranching operation.

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