Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How the West Was One

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The battle for the Wyoming Range wore on and on. So long, it’s been a difficult story to follow with rapt interest. Most know the outline: Big Oil threatened to drill in some of the most pristine acreage the state has to offer. Opposition mounted. Citizens rallied.

And then, the most unlikeliest of endings. Bambi beats Godzilla. A loose-knit band of sportsmen, hunters, ranchers, and tree-huggers put away their differences long enough to stare down a common enemy. Only that wasn’t the end. After the credits rolled came a teaser for the sequel. Energy extraction companies are again polishing their drill bits, hoping to squeeze out some of the estimated three trillion barrels of shale oil from beneath the surface—the largest such deposit on the planet.

Years ago, it took an act of Congress and nearly nine million in payoff money to ransom the range back from oil interests. But one thing bothered conservation movement leaders like Dan Smitherman and Lisa McGee. Even as they popped the champagne in 2012, they had an uneasy feeling. A map of the protected mountain range revealed tiny pockets of grandfathered drilling permits. They were nothing, right? Totaling just three percent of the 1.2 million acres, maybe the oil companies would forget about them.

They didn’t.

The dispute over which was more valuable—the land or the juice trapped in the rock beneath it—began long ago. What made the Wyoming namesake range so special happened much, much earlier.

Geologists call it the Green River Formation. It’s a product of the Eocene epoch dated to about 40 to 55 million years ago. At the beginning of this six million year period, earth was a sauna—Wyoming, a lush jungle. Dinosaurs had been dead and gone for some 10 million years and now other stuff was growing like crazy.

And you think we have greenhouse gasses? Scientists estimate oxygen levels were double what they are today. Plant and animal life flourished to the degree that carbon dioxide and methane gases were correspondingly off the chart. All this kept the planet warm until it didn’t. By the end of the epoch, massive glaciers covered Wyoming, and trapped all that prehistoric photosynthesis under varves and varves of sediment.

Add a few uplifts and a fold-and-thrust belt, and the surface of the Wyoming Range sprouted mountains, rivers, and valleys. But the rugged land’s beauty ran more than skin deep. When the energy age came, roughnecks and riggers powered a nation on the mineral trapped underground. Recent improved technology suddenly made a forgotten lake algae known as cyanobacteria the hottest commodity going. Oil shale deposits could literally be wrung from rock, brought to the surface, and burned in our cars and homes. And far below the hooves of her wild animals, Wyoming was sitting on a fortune of it.

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