Pinedale, Wyoming is a small town of less than 1,500 people nestled 7,100 feet high, in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains. From my earliest memories, Pinedale has been a the destination for family relaxation at my maternal grandparent’s house. Each summer my cousins and I roamed those streets and it was like a Technicolor Mayberry to me. I remember earning coins for chores and taking my cousins to the corner ice cream shop; stopping by my aunt’s flower shop for honey suckers; fleeing moose at the children’s fishing pond; observing a quiet albino fawn in the shade beneath a lilac tree; hanging humming-bird feeders; wading in glacier fed lakes; and roasting marshmallows after family barbeques. Each evening, before we’d shut the doors and not lock them, we’d take handmade chicken wire cages and place them over the flower and vegetable gardens, because deer and moose loved to eat them in the cool of the night.
Throughout my family’s history in that town, big oil has been circling. In the 1970’s there were even proposals to use nuclear explosions to loosen the tough shale that housed that gas, but the community fought those off. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s oil companies continued to be annoyed with the lack of ability to reach these pockets of natural gas. Finally, in the late 1990’s companies like Encana were able to develop fracking processes that were able to complete the violent act that was once only possible with nuclear explosives – and thus drilling for natural gas in the Green River Basin of Wyoming began. With the drill baby drill policies of the Bush administration that were continued by Barack Obama as well – the little town of Mayberry was soon overrun by the influence of big oil. High on the tax windfalls, Pinedale built a fancy swimming pool in the local school and added other amenities like a senior citizen bus route. At first, and even still today, many residents think of oil companies positively.
I cannot agree with that sentiment. When I went home last summer for the Rendezvous Parade, a ceremony celebrating the fur trade of the the late 1800s, I was shocked to see the once non-motorized traditional parade taken over by various oil company floats tossing toys, candy and pop-cycles with their logos into the crowd while towing snow mobiles, boats and four wheelers for spectators to ogle. All afternoon, I heard nothing but, “This event was brought to you by Shell Oil,” and I couldn’t help but wonder who brought that same event to us faithfully every year for the previous hundred and fifty years. I noticed that my grandfather’s garden was as beautiful as always, but that he no longer needed to put out the wire cages because the animals don’t come into town anymore. I saw that the local grocery had sold out to a big box chain, that the ice cream shop was now a fast food place, and that the prairie just outside of town was now an RV park filled with oil workers and their trashy mobile homes.
Since they started drilling in that area it has been a documented that mule deer herds in there have dropped to half their 2001 size, that there was a hundred percent increase in meth related arrests from 2004-2005, and that the once pristine wilderness has now been marred irrefutably by hundreds of well pads.
In addition to the cost of the loss of pristine wilderness and functioning migratory systems that support the indigenous wildlife, and the cost of drugs and societal pressures, we also have a cost to human health. According to the EPA folks who live near the gas fields are complaining of watery eyes, shortness of breath and bloody noses because of ozone levels that have exceeded what people in L.A. and other major cities wheeze through on their worst pollution days.
I am dismayed. Pinedale residents, including my now elderly grandfather who wears oxygen to sleep, must breathe this polluted air. They must do without their wildlife. They must settle for a diesel-powered Rendezvous. They must plan for methamphetamine addiction. They must look back on memories of Mayberry and wonder at the justice of their tradeoff. Was it really fair that they traded 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and something like $65 million in big oil profit for human health issues, environmental degradation, and societal unrest? It seems unjust, for a place that has a population density of around 5 people per square mile to suffer as bad or worse pollution levels than L.A. – a place that has a population density of something closer to 2,600 people per square mile – especially when you consider that even if every bit of that gas were pumped and ready all at once, it is still only enough to fulfill the United States’ need for about four months. For that, Mayberry, its mule deer, its moose, its pristine air and waters, and its close-knit community is gone forever.
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