Thursday, April 07, 2011

Dick Cheney's legacy -- sickly Wyomingites and water supplies that catch fire

“Gasland” was not exactly a gas – but it did make me think.

The documentary was screened this evening at the Kiwanis Community House in Cheyenne before 60-some people. It explores natural gas drilling throughout the U.S., mainly that taking place in shale oil plays like the one beneath us in southeast Wyoming.

The film’s director, Josh Fox, traveled from his rural homestead in Pennsylvania to our wide-open Rocky Mountain spaces, interviewing those who’ve been impacted by the byproducts of drilling. Weld County, Colo., was his first stop. He watched homeowners flick their Bics under kitchen faucets. Fires erupted. The air and groundwater are being polluted by fracking chemicals. People are getting sick. The Wyoming DEQ issues air pollution alerts for rural Sublette County due to the energy boom. Air quality is as bad as L.A.’s on some days.

Wyoming rancher and former oil patch welder John Fenton attended the Cheyenne screening. He’s a cowboy working his in-laws’ spread near Pavilion. He’s surrounded by gas wells and storage tanks. Clouds composed of gas and chemical byproducts sometimes envelop his house. His three-year-old son began having seizures as soon as the family moved in. His wife has recurring headaches. His mother-in-law has lost several of her five senses. She’s consulted docs throughout the West and they have no answers. The Feltons can’t drink their water. For 18 months, John made the 80-mile round trip to town to fetch his water. He now has water delivered.

These are good people whose lives have been upended by the rush to pump as much gas from shale as possible – and damn anybody who gets in the way. Sure, it’s great to develop homegrown energy. You’ll find bipartisan agreement on that. But at what cost?

John has joined a delegation traveling to D.C. several times. They have met with the Wyoming Congressional delegation. “I’d like to say that they listened and are working hard for us,” John said. “But they’re not. Their loyalties lie elsewhere.”

Remember these names: Sen. Mike Enzi, Sen. John Barrasso, Rep. Cynthia Lummis. They boast that they stand up for the citizens of Wyoming. But they don’t. Rep. Lummis, one of the richest members of Congress who can’t be bothered with the concerns of “the little people.” Sen. John Barrasso, a physician who can’t be bothered with the health problems of farmers and ranchers. Sen. Mike Enzi, entrepreneur whose loyalties lie elsewhere – with big corporations instead of with Wyomingites trying to make a living from the land.

It is shameful to contemplate the power of oil and gas companies. It’s also shameful to note, as Mr. Fox does in his film, that the catalyst for these problems was none other than Wyoming’s not-so-favorite-son, Dick Cheney. His secret energy commission drafted what became the 2005 energy bill which exempted oil and gas companies from the Clean Air Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, EPA regulations and almost any other environmental regulations. This is known as The Halliburton Loophole.

Thanks, Dick. I hope the people of Teton County remember Mr. Cheney as they try to protect the Hoback River Basin from rampant and largely unregulated gas drilling. Dick has a home in Jackson, you see. His ritzy neighbors might not be pleased when they can’t breathe and their gold-plated water faucets start catching on fire.

Most of the post-film discussion focused on citizen action. As I mentioned earlier, the Niobrara Oil Play Boom is happening right now in southeast Wyoming. Not too much to ask to require better oversight of the drilling process, from beginning to end, by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Not too much to ask our legislators to be looking out for our needs rather than those of energy companies and lobbyists. Not too much to ask for our county commissioners and city council members to be looking out for the health and welfare of Laramie County citizens.

They may need extra persuasion. Attend commission and council meetings. And there are several organizations working hard for citizen rights. They are the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council. They were the co-sponsors of the free film screening. These conservation organizations got involved in the Pavilion situation. But not much happened until the Environmental Protection Agency got involved, according to the PRBRC’s Jill Morrison.

Both the PRBRC and the Wyoming Outdoor Council seek full disclosure on chemicals and processes used in the drilling process, from beginning to end. Not too much to ask, is it?

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