Standing under the vast blue dome of the Wyoming sky on an August morning, rancher L.J. Turner gazes at a puddle of brown water at the bottom of a grass-ringed pit covered in thick mud. Judging from the scattering of antelope or deer bones near the water’s edge, it’s a potential death trap for any long-legged animal tempted to clamber down to take a drink.
In a state as arid as Wyoming, an all-but-empty water hole in midsummer would not seem remarkable. But it’s an unwelcome new normal to L.J., whose grandparents homesteaded this ranch in 1918, and his wife, Karen.
As L.J. describes it, this was just one of several spring-fed pools on the ranch, which is in the heart of Campbell County, about 18 miles south of the town of Wright. A creek connected the water holes, he says, which were full of fish and frogs even in the hottest summer. The pools quenched the thirst of his livestock, attracted wild pronghorn and mule deer, and were destinations for family picnics.
“I’ve seen this creek here be running water a quarter of a mile wide,” he says. “It would be as high as that rim. It would stay up all the time. On down below here, the banks of the creeks were lined with rosebushes and willows.”
“When I was small, we had fish here in the creek,” L.J. says. “Nothing fancy, no trout stream or anything like that. There was bullhead, there was perch, there was sunfish, fish that a kid can mess around with. In the wintertime, whenever I’d get to thinking I was an ice skater, I’d go down on one of these water holes and cut a hole in the ice. The water would just boil up out of the thing. It’d flood the ice completely. That night it’d freeze, and I’d have a marvelous fresh bunch of ice to go play on.”
A slight stoop in L.J’s shoulders, and the lines on Karen’s fair-skinned face, hint at the decades the Turners have spent ranching, most of them on this land in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. L.J., 75 and gray haired, speaks in a slow Western drawl, while Karen, 69, delivers her thoughts at a faster pace—possibly a remnant of her New York City girlhood. Both have ready smiles for visitors to their spacious, airy ranch house, where hand-sewn quilts cover the beds and a collection of wildlife prints and wood carvings, acquired in travels around the West and the world, bear witness to their love of nature.
The Turners paid high inheritance taxes on several thousand acres of federal grazing permits dating from the 1930s for the area, called Thunder Basin, after L.J.’s mother bequeathed the ranch to their children. Today an open-pit coal mine covers most of that land. Called North Antelope Rochelle, the mine is owned and operated by Peabody Energy. By annual output in tons per acre, it is the world’s biggest coal mine. The second largest is Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine, 10 miles to the north.
“The well here at the house, when we first got married, it was almost artesian,” says Karen. “The water came within four feet of the surface.” The water level has dropped dramatically as mining companies suck up groundwater—a process called dewatering—to gain access to coal.
“We have wells now that are over 500 feet deep,” she adds.
“The one up at the house is a thousand,” L.J. says.
“And it costs a lot of money to drill a water well,” says Karen, “thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Recently they learned that the PVC lining had collapsed in a replacement well they had drilled about 10 years ago, at a cost of more than $10,000. It should have lasted for decades. “It was plastic casing, it’s pretty indestructible, and it doesn’t rust. So what happened?” L.J. says. The technician who inspected it told the Turners the likely cause was underground vibration from fracking at nearby oil wells, although “to be fair, the guy said it could be an earthquake that did that,” L.J. adds with a laugh.
“Fossil fuel industries, collectively, they’ve floated Wyoming’s boat for the last several decades,” says Connie Wilbert, a Wyoming native and the director of the state’s chapter of the Sierra Club. For decades the epicenter of the state’s energy development has been the Powder River Basin. Across a wide swath of the West, from the oil-and-gas-laden Bakken Formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota to Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, advances in extraction techniques and equipment have made it possible to get at once-inaccessible oil and gas deposits. The Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills were dramatic disasters that have inspired feature films and attracted years of national news coverage. The headlong exploitation of fossil fuel reserves in the West has been a slower-moving story of environmental devastation, with people like the Turners pitted against powerful oil and gas companies, coal giants, and the government as fossil energy development industrializes an iconic American landscape.
In the late 1990s, a pair of laid-off oil drillers named Bruce Martens and Chuck Peck found a way to pump groundwater off shallow coal seams in the Powder River Basin, which freed natural gas from the coal, turning it from a nuisance into a valuable commodity. They eventually sold their gas fields for $40 million, setting off an energy boom that has generated thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in state revenues.
In the process, nearly 350 billion gallons of water were pumped out of the ground, at rates far faster than Wyoming’s average of 16 inches of rainfall a year could replenish.
The coal bed methane boom went bust with the Great Recession, and low oil and natural gas prices have combined with bankruptcies in the coal industry to throttle Wyoming’s economy. A full fifth of the state’s mining jobs, around 5,500 positions, vanished during the first quarter of 2016 alone—a big hit in a state with a population of 586,000. Wyoming is now contending with a budget gap as large as $150 million.
Jobs and tax revenues are not all that the Cowboy State has lost in the past decade and a half. Between 2001 and 2011, Wyoming led Western states in land consumed by development, according to The Disappearing West, a recent report from the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress. The state’s four northeastern counties, which cover Wyoming’s portion of the Powder River Basin, lost more than 205,000 acres largely because of energy development. More than half those acres were in Campbell County, where development ate up open space nearly seven times faster than in any other part of the state.
The Turners are convinced that dust from North Antelope Rochelle sickened their livestock, saying that most of the calves they’ve pastured elsewhere have typically survived weaning, while many pastured here have not. “If we have a health problem with them again,” he says, “we’ll know definitely.”
The Turners also miss the rural peace that once surrounded them, before methane flares at the oil wells lit up the night and a procession of tanker trucks began traveling the property daily. They miss the pronghorn and sage grouse that have disappeared from the ranch as dirt-and-gravel access roads, concrete drill pads, and power lines have broken up the open spaces and the coal mines have consumed the grassland.
The Turners admit they’ve welcomed the income from fees paid to them by oil and gas companies that gained access to their land. “The kids have been able to get a better education than we could have given them otherwise,” says L.J.
Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners advocacy group that counts the Turners among its members, scrolls through dozens of slides on her computer attesting to the environmental damage from the coal bed methane boom years.
In one photo, a dead gallery forest of cottonwood trees marches along a stream bank. They were killed when a driller pumped high-sodium groundwater down the creek. A pair of images show a large ranch pasture flooded with discharged groundwater, and then the same pasture covered with whorls of dry white dust: the salt that was left behind when the water evaporated.