Photo: Richard Foulser (Dick Bilodeau)
In Wyoming, the nation's ninth largest and—with a little more than half a million residents—least populous state, the mountains appear red in the morning and purple at dusk. But surface beauty can be deceiving in a place so obsessed with what's beneath it. "Wyoming's split-estate law," Thomas explains, "means that if industry has leased the rights below your land, they can develop oil and natural gas regardless of your preferences or livelihood." Such laws, common in Rocky Mountain states, date to the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916, which offered eager settlers 640 free acres but preserved the federal government's rights to anything valuable below ground, from coal to gas to gold. In Wyoming, there are approximately 11.6 million acres of split-estate land. And since the energy industry is the largest private contributor to the state's GDP, drilling happens practically at will. More than 1,000 new wells were drilled in 2012. Almost 24,000 more have been proposed.
But the wells abutting Thomas's place weren't built on her land. "There's a state-owned section of our subdivision," Thomas explains, pouring her potent espresso blend into insulated travel mugs for the road. Her kitchen table is cluttered with hot sauces, bananas, and impenetrable-looking documents, including a marked-up copy of the rules and regulations of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "The state," she says, "makes money off rights for oil and gas extraction and uses it for the schools." The companies that pay for those rights, like Enre (or Windsor Energy Group, which took over in 2003 after Enre declared bankruptcy), aren't exactly neighborly. They don't knock on your door to discuss their intentions before sending in their Caterpillars. "No one really tells you what's happening," Thomas says. Even when you start seeing fires in the sky.
After taking control of the Bennett Creek pad, Windsor began flaring a new well. Flaring—releasing a giant flame from the rig—is a common practice, used mainly to calibrate pressure in the well. "They flared for months," says Thomas. "The noise was like a 747 always flying through our yard. In the middle of the night, when it used to be pitch-black, we could sit outside and read the newspaper." Meanwhile, the semis continued to barrel through, delivering chemicals with names like DeepDrill Inhibitor and FlexThin HTZ. Windstorms would shred the plastic packaging, says Thomas, and scatter debris all over her land.
The totality of Windsor's invasion angered her, but it also tapped into an activism that arose like a reflex. Maybe it was that she knew how this story ended. "I didn't want the same thing happening in Clark as where I'm from, in Montana," she says. "We had all kinds of pollution in the air and in the water. I didn't know anything about oil and gas, but based on what I'd seen with mining, I knew it wasn't going to be good. It's so beautiful here. So things got personal very fast." Thomas started photographing the flares, wrote down the names of the companies working up on the pad, and kept a log of the garbage flying off of it, all while putting in double shifts as manager of a sirloin and sandwich joint 30 miles down the road. She also got in touch with the Powder River Basin Resource Council—a local group dedicated to conservation and empowering landowners—and began learning how to defend herself. She was just in time: Her enemy was about to grow much more powerful.
Next: How fracking works