Howie Kahn reports on the hidden costs of the new American energy boom—and the small-town restaurant manager who's made Wyoming hers to save.
Morning coffee brewing, embers warming the woodstove, her husband, Dick Bilodeau, stretching out in yoga poses on the living room floor before heading into the high mountain sunshine to feed the horses. For just a moment, Deb Thomas's life looks serene, idyllic, as peaceful as she intended. That was the plan, anyway: to move back to Clark, Wyoming, near the Montana coal- mining town where she was raised, to buy some land and build a house far away from the Arizona heat and resort hospitality work that had consumed her for years. Her son, Quinn, would grow up seeing more elk and coyotes than cars or people, more snowy peaks than big-box stores or drive-through windows. Dick would make furniture or take on whatever contracting jobs his sore back would allow. And Deb? She'd work in her sister's Yellowstone souvenir store nearby or manage a restaurant, like she always had, but one with a more rural crowd. It was a dream of simplicity, unburdened space, and personal freedom. "We thought we'd ride horses," says Thomas, 59, "fish in the creek, and hike the trails."
For five years, Deb, Dick, and Quinn, 6 years old when the family moved in 1994, settled into their deep-country lifestyle. "We were laid-back," Thomas says. Clark sits at the foot of the Beartooth range on a high desert plain, where the wind whips hard and the sun shines bright. There's no town to speak of, just a few hundred quiet-seeking residents scattered widely across 193 square miles of rocky bluffs and rolling pastures. Deb and Dick's plot of land is situated along a rising stretch of the Line Creek Valley. If they look farther up their road, they see snowcapped summits. If they look back down, it's all waves of sagebrush and flatlands, until, finally, more mountains jut up in the distance. The family moved into a trailer that had been left on the property. "We were just getting ready to build our house," says Thomas, her frameless glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, her long gray hair swept back into a ponytail. She's not operating from a place of nostalgia. Her demeanor is calm, resolute, as she recounts the events that transformed her expectations of rural living—and, ultimately, her life.
Their house was supposed to be a straw-bale job. Dick had researched its construction and was ready to build in the summer of 1999 when the trucks started pulling through. As on any unpaved country road, the occasional pickup kicked up dust as it passed. But this was different. Thomas watched as 18-wheelers hauling machinery and drilling materials churned clouds of dirt into the otherwise pristine air. "Up to 100 trucks a day," she says. They stopped just beyond her horse pasture and carved a flat expanse out of the side of a hill with their bulldozers.
Propelled by Clark's heavy winds (Thomas had covered her trailer's roof with tires to keep it from blowing away), all that bulldozed dirt flew fast and furious off the development site. "Everything was covered with this cruddy film," Thomas recalls. Then, a drilling rig went up, blighting Thomas's alpine views. In building a two-acre base for drilling called the Bennett Creek pad, Enre—a Texas-based energy company—not only erected a towering metal structure 200 feet from Thomas's property, they also rerouted a natural mountain drainage into her pasture, she says. The four horses there had been a longtime dream; she'd had some as a kid in Montana and wanted to give Quinn that same experience. Now her animals were in the path of runoff from the pad. "Every time it stormed," says Thomas, "we'd have to move them to another part of the property where they'd be safe."
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.
Picture an L-shaped hole in the earth that descends more than a mile and then bends sharply, extending another mile. That's what a fracked well often looks like. Its shape—its tremendous horizontal reach—signifies our newly minted, all-access pass to previously inaccessible resources. After the hole has been drilled, millions of gallons of fluids (primarily water, but also any of 600 or so chemicals, including acids and detergents) are blasted into subterranean rock. As the earth breaks apart in fissures and cracks, minerals escape in abundance and rise to the surface. Thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing), we've discovered far more oil and gas in this country than anyone ever imagined we had. Getting to it—and fast—has become a national obsession.
While no one outside the energy industry had even heard of fracking 20 years ago, the idea dates back to the 1860s. That's when a former Union army lieutenant colonel named Edward A.L. Roberts shot an explosive device called the Roberts Torpedo down a Pennsylvania well, increasing its productivity by as much as 1,200 percent. In the 1960s scientists upped the ante with Project Gasbuggy, dropping a 29-kiloton nuclear device more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima into a natural gas well in New Mexico, only to conclude that the gas became radioactive. Hydraulic fracturing (using primarily gasoline) began quietly in the late 1940s. But it wasn't until the 1990s that advancements in directional drilling—i.e., proceeding sideways or diagonally—plus more effective fluids allowed a Texas oil magnate named George Mitchell to force oil and gas from previously impermeable shale. A new American energy rush was officially on.
Nearly two decades later, fracking operations clutter the American landscape, and an estimated 90 percent of all new wells drilled in Wyoming will eventually be fracked, says Grant Black, supervisor of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "Hydraulic fracturing has a strong, positive effect on the economy," he says. A recent industry-funded report claims that in 2012 the boom supported more than 2.1 million jobs nationally; produced $74 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues; and boosted the income of every American household by $1,200—the result of cheaper energy costs directly linked to our new production. These numbers are growing: By 2025, the report suggests, frackers could be enriching your bank account by more than $3,500 annually. They're also offering the very real possibility of energy independence: We've already surpassed Russia as the planet's foremost producer of natural gas, and by 2020, we may best Saudi Arabia to become the largest oil producer, too.
But to people like Deb Thomas, $1,200 can look more like hush money than a stimulus plan. In Wyoming, she says, animals are getting sick, headaches come on viciously, cancer-causing chemicals are found in the air, some residents say their senses of smell and taste have been wiped out, and breathing itself has been compromised. These things don't just happen by chance, she'll tell you: In rural areas where no other pollutants are typically present, the only thing that could be causing clustered illnesses is the wells.
"Many of the chemicals associated with drilling and fracking affect the brain in one way or another," confirms Theo Colborn, PhD, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), an organization that researches the health effects of low-level exposure to chemicals in the environment. "People can get headaches, become dizzy; they get nauseous and throw up. Over time, the nerves can break down, so people start getting the wrong signals at the ends of their toes, in their fingers, hands, and arms. That's terribly painful. When it has reached that point, it's beyond where it can be reversed."
Energy executives, of course, insist that fracking is safe, and that the accusations from activists—Matt Damon cowrote a movie about fracking, Promised Land; Yoko Ono has released antifracking videos on YouTube—are naïve. "When people say they're against fracking, they're really against oil and gas development," says Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana, a company with a major stake in Wyoming's oil and gas development. "They have concerns, and those need to be addressed. But oftentimes these people are in New York or areas where there has not been drilling, so it's a new activity to them. An industrial activity."
Thomas agrees that the issue is bigger than just fracking. "The problems start the minute a hole is punched in the ground," she says, citing semis, noise, and toxic fluids. Fracking just accounts for a lot more wells. And with leading state politicians firmly in the pro-fracking camp—it's putting people back to work, after all—regulation can be lax. Not even the EPA is accountable: A provision in the 2005 energy bill known as the "Halliburton Loophole" (championed by former Halliburton CEO and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who grew up in Wyoming and owns a home there) bars the agency from regulating the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. The result: Energy companies are innocent until proven guilty, and it's left to the people of Wyoming to demonstrate a connection between oil and gas development and their health. Luckily, one of them has volunteered for the job.
On Line Creek, Deb Thomas was fighting back. In 2005, she organized her community of Clark—with more than a year's worth of phone calls, public meetings, mailers, and e-mail blasts—to keep a seismic exploration at least a quarter mile away from anybody's home or private water well. (A seismic exploration is a way to scout for new oil and gas, in this case by detonating explosive charges.) "Once they pushed the seismic back," says Thomas, "they didn't get the results they were after, and it stopped them from drilling." Next she helped drum up enough local opposition to stop Windsor from boring into the vast Shoshone National Forest, our nation's oldest national forest. To get people's attention, in addition to the phone calls and e-mails, she placed stories in the Cody Enterprise and Billings Gazette. She even led field trips into the forest to convince anybody who would listen just how much damage could be done. "We seem to think that it's all for us," says Thomas, in a rare moment of unguarded passion, "that we should be able to go wherever we want on the planet. Love me or hate me, I feel very connected to the land, and I'm going to be a pit bull about protecting it."
In 2006, Windsor began work on the 8,000-foot-deep Crosby 25-3 well a half mile up the road from Thomas's house. That summer, Thomas remembers getting a phone call. "It was my neighbor," she says. "He told me the Crosby well was about to blow. He told me they couldn't control it. He told me: 'Get out. Get out now.' "
Dick was away visiting his sick mother outside Seattle, and Quinn, 18 at the time, was working in the nearby town of Powell. Thomas was alone in her cluttered home office, so zoned into her work that she hadn't noticed her nose running and her eyes burning. After years of living so close to a pad, those symptoms were normal. Irritants always seemed to linger in the air. Plus, Thomas had her air conditioning set to full blast. She didn't hear what was going on up the road. The release of chemicals, including an estimated 101 tons of methane—a greenhouse gas 20 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide—sounds only like a low hiss.
Thomas thought first about her animals. "I asked my neighbor if there was time to move the horses," she says. He told her no. So she put down her papers and walked out the front door. Nothing looked different, but the gas was detectable. "You feel it on your skin," says Thomas. "You taste it." After calling for her two dogs, Buddy and Callie, Thomas drove down the mountain to the local community center, where she found a handful of neighbors who had been evacuated by the fire department. Details slowly began to emerge. Due to a buildup of pressure, the ground was beginning to crack around the pad, and workers didn't have enough heavy mud to shut down the well. "I later found out there were about 30 blowholes spewing drilling fluids out of the ground for hours," says Thomas. It took Windsor three days to get the well under control. "The whole time," Thomas recalls, "there was just this big fear of the blowout turning into a fire. If it caught a spark, it would have burned down the whole area and everything in it." (Windsor Energy did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
In the end, the blowout was a near miss. But it marked a tipping point. The serene silence of Clark had been shattered, leaving Thomas no choice but to match her surroundings and grow inordinately loud. She'd already signed on as a community organizer with Powder River Basin Resource Council, pulling in $26,000 a year to fight some of the most powerful companies on the planet. But now, more intensely than ever, Thomas knew protecting families like hers would be her life's work. "There are all these people just getting creamed," she says. "So that's who I represent: the people of Wyoming who are impacted and don't have a voice."
"We should bring the gas masks," says Thomas, wearing jeans, boots, a burgundy zip-up sweater, and a black pillbox-style hat with floral embroidery and loading her thermos of coffee into her Ford Taurus. "We're heading into oil and gas development hell." First stop: Deaver, Wyoming, about an hour's drive from Clark, where Doug and 'Genie McMullan run a modest goat farm.
On the drive, Thomas explains that the McMullans share their farm with underground pipelines, oil storage tanks, wastewater pits, and two humongous pumpjacks pecking slowly at the earth like giant birds of prey. Over the past nine years, she says, trucks have run roughshod over their property, pipelines have burst beneath it, and there's been constant digging in their pasture to fix the pipelines. Meanwhile, 'Genie has respiratory issues, and some of their goats have miscarried. "When things start going wrong," Thomas says, "the question isn't 'When's it going to stop?' It's 'What'll go wrong next?'"
In the McMullans' tidy wood-paneled trailer, while 'Genie feeds a baby goat in her lap, Thomas critiques the couple's letters to the company pumping oil on their property. She's advising Doug and 'Genie to fight for compensation for damages and an agreement that would set guidelines for future use of their land. "That's why this lady is so important," says Doug, who has watery blue eyes and a mustache the color of hay. He jokes, "Every time I mention guns or bombs in my letters, she deletes it." But Thomas is also the couple's de facto therapist. As the pollution stressed their business, it stressed their marriage, too. Living in an area with few other people around, the McMullans took out their strains on each other—until Thomas showed up, willing to listen for hours. She knows what they're going through: After the blowout on Line Creek, it took her five years to sleep through the night. She'd wake frequently, put on her boots, and head out the door to make sure that nothing was about to explode.
Outside, Thomas hands me a gas mask and leads us through the mud toward the far end of the farm, where we're met by a pumpjack and two towering storage tanks that reek of hydrogen sulfide (think: rancid hard-boiled eggs). Filthy paper towels are scattered on the ground. "There was a spill the other day," says Doug, from beneath his camouflage baseball cap. "They're trying to clean up an oil spill with paper towels."
Thomas nods. "This is what we're dealing with," she says. Then she adds, "I think we're gonna get this cleaned up the right way. Even if it's a bar fight all the way to the end."
Next: How they're making progress
The next day, Thomas drives 180 miles south to John and Catherine Fenton's sprawling alfalfa farm in Pavillion, Wyoming, where she's greeted with hugs. As John leads Thomas out to his pickup, they discuss the local situation. Louis Meeks's water stinks like gasoline. Twenty households are drinking water provided by Encana, which drills in the area. John is a rugged 41-year-old farmer who quit a lucrative job welding gas lines in 2001. "The industry is where you go if you want to make decent money," he says, pulling over a ridge to reveal a herd of cattle gathered amid 125 wells. "But there's a trade-off. We're just destroying things that we can never get back." John points toward the home of his neighbors Jeff and Rhonda Locker. "Their water passes through a filtration system, and it turns those filters black," he says. Thomas asks about Rhonda's neuropathy. "She says it feels like somebody's running a knife through her bones," John says. As for his own family, "Our property value is half what it was. My wife has lost her sense of smell. Whenever my son gets in the shower, I wonder what the water might be doing to him."
In 2008, Thomas helped get a group from Pavillion, Clark, and Deaver a meeting at the EPA office in Denver, which resulted in an investigation by the agency. A draft of their landmark findings, published in December 2011, linked fracking to groundwater contamination. (In August of that year, an environmental group uncovered an obscure 1987 EPA report that did the same, contradicting longstanding industry claims that fracking has never contaminated groundwater.) Thomas was thrilled: She could now appeal to legislators to regulate more carefully. But instead of seeking peer-review and finalizing the report, the agency handed it over to Wyoming in June so the state's own scientists could further investigate the findings. Encana is now helping to fund a follow-up study. "The EPA is backing off studies related to fracking," says Thomas, incredulous.
As Doug Fenton and Thomas head into his tool shop for a local meeting of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Fenton's mother-in-law passes out slices of her extraordinary blueberry and peach crumb-topped pies. This is Deb Thomas's grassroots army. She knows progress depends on keeping her troops positive, but she will later express frustration about the fate of the EPA report, once a bright beacon of hope. "Right now, they have no plan, no experts," Thomas says of Wyoming's follow-up study. So she is yet again rallying residents of Wyoming to voice their disapproval. Even Thomas knows she can't stop the trillion dollar oil and gas industry dead in its tracks. But she'll speak as loud as she can until there are enforceable rules and more state inspectors (currently, Wyoming has 12 to oversee its 38,000 wells). "This is hard, discouraging work," Thomas says, "but think about it: You really can't go anywhere now without hearing about fracking. It's meetings like this that made that happen."
Around midnight, Thomas picks up her cell phone. "I'm heading home," she tells Dick. "I'll be safe. I love you." Twenty years after moving to Wyoming, the couple are still living out of their trailer. "We've put everything on hold," Thomas says, "but that's what happens to everyone who has these issues. You wait to feel safe. You wait for answers." For Thomas, it's been an active wait. She's thought for years about moving, but she has a purpose here. The landscape that drew her here for enjoyment and peace now means something completely different. It's here to be preserved.
As Wyoming goes to sleep, Deb Thomas throttles on across the high plains. The northern lights flicker in the sky. Pumpjacks rise and fall by the roadside, and flare stacks glow in the distance. Their burn, as the clock strikes 2 A.M., is matched by Thomas's. This late and this far out into the country, it's just her and them—the only things still working.