Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The war is over. Halliburton won!"

That's from a pickup truck's bumper sticker spied by author Alexandra Fuller on a jaunt across Wyoming. It's part of a column the Wilson-based writer wrote for the New York Times Op-Ed pages. In it, she blasts the "untouchables" that run the oil and gas industry in Wyoming.

And a powerful oil lobby reminds us with Orwellian regularity that we owe everything to oil and gas taxes, bullying those who disagree. (In February, a committee of the Wyoming Legislature rejected a spending increase for the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources after institute scientists dared to raise concerns about water produced in coal-bed methane wells.)

Yes, it's true. The energy extractors run the state, even run roughshod over it. Our Oilmen-in-Chief, Bush & Cheney, have made it easy for them. The Halliburtons of the world are poking holes in every last part of Wyoming they can get their snouts into. When citizens raise their voices and say something such as "Not So Fast," the oil lobby questions the patriotism of the critics. This is a dicey business in rural stretches of the state, where the critics are not your average namby-pamby enviromentalist but ranchers and housewives and hunters and even those who work in the oil patch but value our outdoor spaces. They could even be veterans of Bush's oil wars who have come home to find that the war is being waged in their hometowns, places such as Pinedale and Rawlins and Wright.

Lately, executives have been telling increasingly unhappy communities that domestic drilling is our moral duty, an alternative to sending more soldiers to war. They imply that anything less than full support for the oil companies is un-American.

Alexandra points out that the industry has a lousy track record on worker safety, topping the "national death toll on the job" statistics with 16.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. Not surprisingly, Alexandra's upcoming book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, has for its focus a young man from Evanston who was killed in an oil field accident. The book has already garnered some favorable reviews. Alexandra hits the road May 8 for her book tour. First Wyoming stop is Evanston on Friday, May 16. She'll conduct an author’s talk and book signing at the Uinta County Library, 307 Main St., with a 5:30 p.m. social hour followed by Alexandra’s talk and signing. There will be a dinner at 7 p.m. for ticket holders. For more info, contact Jan Maggard at

It would be preferable if an actual discussion ensued during the tour. That's a lot to hope for in these times, when opponents usually start each "discussion" yelling and the volume and vitriol goes up from there. But it could happen. In her op-ed piece, Alexandra notes that author and UW writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams has taken her students on the road to conduct what she calls "weather reports" in small communities.

Addressing packed rooms, Ms. Williams turns the microphone over to the people of Wyoming — a stoical populace whose habitual stance against something they don’t like is a tight lip. Astonishingly, they have opened up, voicing their concerns over the rapidity and scale of the oil and gas development. "One day, I fear I will wake up and all that will be left of Wyoming is a hole in the ground," one resident of the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem said.

Oil executives have pushed back. One oilman, State Senator Kit Jennings, took the microphone in Casper and declared that Ms. Williams had demonized the oil companies. He rejected her contention in a local newspaper article that the energy boom had helped drive up the use of crystal methamphetamine in the region and announced that he had demanded that she be fired from the university for her criticism of the industry.

Oil and gas are accustomed to dominating the debate. But Ms. Williams’s forums have created an opportunity for grass-roots rebuttal. Residents, who have so far been cowed by the enormous tax contributions that energy companies make to the state’s coffers, are upholding values not counted in dollars.

According to one participant at the "weather report" in Casper, Jennings ended up inviting Ms. Williams for a tour of the Jonah Field. No word yet on whether she's taken the senator up on his invitation.

It's noteworthy when two writers can garner this much attention and controversy for giving voice to their views -- and helping others to have theirs.

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