Dark Side of the Boom

Natural gas drilling in the West is taking a toll on wildlife and the environment.

By Virginia Hughes

Nestled between mountain and forest, the Upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming holds some of the world’s largest deposits of fossil fuel. It’s also home to tens of thousands of Sublette mule deer.

In the summer, the deer forage on high-elevation protected forestland. When the cold sets in, they migrate—up to 150 miles—along a sagebrush path to low-elevation areas where shallow snow makes it easier to find food.

“Unfortunately, it’s also those low-elevation basins where all the gas occurs,” says wildlife biologist Hall Sawyer, of Western EcoSystems Technology, who’s used GPS radio collars to track the deer in the region over the past five years. The data shows that the dramatic increase in natural gas drilling has disrupted the ungulates’ perennial journey. “We don’t know if the animals will be able to negotiate the changes, or just quit migrating,” he says. If the latter, then most would likely die of starvation.

Since the early 1990s, natural gas drilling in the West has soared. According to the Energy Information Administration, the number of U.S. natural gas wells grew from 275,414 at the end of 1992 to 425,303 at the end of 2005.With more wells come more drill pads, roads, pipelines, and airstrips, all of which take a toll on the surrounding natural environment. In addition to destroying habitat for species like the mule deer, drilling kicks up tons of dust and spits noxious gases into the air and water. And in areas where natural gas is extracted from coal beds, drilling creates billions of gallons of too-salty water that nobody’s yet figured out what to do with.

The recent boom in drilling may be modest compared to what’s slated for the future. In just the five states that produce the most natural gas—Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—more than 126,000 new oil and gas wells are likely to be approved for public lands within 15 to 20 years, according to a report released in August by the Wilderness Society, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit.

“The Administration is going faster and faster in approving this development without even considering the impact on the water and wildlife,” says senior council for the Wilderness Society Nada Culver. “And once destroyed, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get it back.” 

Sawyer first began tracking populations of Sublette Mule Deer in Anticline region of the Upper Green River Basin in 1998, three years before gas field development began there, and has continued to track them ever since. From this data, he made maps of their movement patterns before and after the drills were in place (see figures). When the natural gas wells came in, the human activity scared the deer far away from their crucial winter range, leaving them vulnerable to starvation.

Along with ousting the deer, drilling construction and vehicle traffic creates a lot of dust. “People living in those areas are literally covered with dust,” says hydrochemist Mark Williams of the University of Colorado at Boulder. “[The dust] has large impacts on the natural ecosystems.” In Colorado, snowmelt accounts for about 80 percent of all usable water. Extra dust in the snow, he explains, makes it melt faster because it’s less reflective. “Once that snow’s melted, our water source is gone before we can capture it.”  Dust also contains aerosols, like mercury, that mix with diesel exhaust from drill rigs and pollute the air.

Perhaps the most pressing environmental consequence comes from extracting methane gas from the surface of coal beds, where it’s trapped under pressure from deep water aquifers. To get it out, coalbed methane drillers must pump out enormous amounts of this water. A typical well dewaters about 16,000 gallons a day, according to the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana. Sometimes it takes years of dewatering before any gas can be extracted. Once out, the water is much too salty for irrigation, though some of it can be used for livestock watering, or very rarely, human water supplies. Most of it ends up in holding ponds or local water sources.

The quantity of water is the coalbed methane industry’s biggest problem, says Rod De Bruin, manager of the energy and water resources division of the Wyoming State Geological Survey. “Even if you were able to clean it up, you’d still need a use for it,” he says. A few private companies are re-injecting the water into different aquifers, he adds, “but it’s fairly costly. And with prices the way they are right now, it’s not economical.”

Energy companies have little incentive to address environmental concerns, not least because they often deny that they’re causing environmental degradation. It’s almost impossible, for instance, to determine with certainty the source of air pollution. “You see that it’s associated with an increase in drilling, but that doesn’t prove that drilling is the source,” Williams explains. “And the measurements are really expensive.”

Most conservationists agree that the only way to curb the damage from current and future fossil fuel development is with more research. “You’ve got to have rigorous monitoring in place in order to move the debate beyond whether or not there is an impact,” Sawyer says. “Science needs to be taken into the policy framework before a big difference can really be seen.”