Protect us from gas drilling, the Bible tells us so
October 3, 2006
As a kid growing up in Nevada and traveling across New Mexico, Utah and southern Colorado nearly every summer to my grandmother’s place in the San Juan Mountains, I had blinders on. I was focused on one thing: the fun I would have running through the knee-high meadow grass near grandma’s house, building forts out of fallen aspen and pine, and sleeping under a blanket of stars. Out the window, I saw only the road, the open space on either side, the towns we passed through and the occasional herd of cattle or stray deer. Life was simple, and the Wild West was my playground.Now, as the Western Lands Fellow for the National Council of Churches, I see things I never noticed before as I drive my rental car from a church meeting in Los Alamos to a conference in Farmington: pumpjacks, and all the trappings of oil and gas drilling such as roads, pipelines, compressor stations and service trucks everywhere, kicking up a trail of dust.I realize I have always been connected to this energy development in at least three ways – as a consumer of oil and gas, as a native Westerner all too familiar with the ups and downs of small-town natural resource economies, and as a creature of this Earth, sharing the finite supply of soil, air and water with all life. My job added another role to this list. I realize now that I – along with all fellow humans – am also charged with being a steward of these lands, which my faith tradition holds as “God’s handiwork.”On one trip to the Four Corners area, a rancher took me on a tour near his home, where the Bureau of Land Management has leased him grazing rights on the surface. The BLM has also given several energy companies drilling rights to the minerals below. The rancher showed me pictures of sick and dying cows that had tested positive for petroleum and antifreeze contamination, and pointed out numerous places where leaks and unprotected buckets and holding ponds gave cattle easy access to poisons. He and neighboring ranchers were tired of being watchdogs, paying to have their dead cattle tested at labs, and playing second fiddle to the companies that were supposed to be sharing this public land.On another trip to New Mexico, I attended a conference in Farmington that brought together environmental advocates, doctors and local residents to talk about oil and gas development in the West. It was the first time I had been taken through the drilling process step by step, and the litany of pollutants and dangerous substances used was staggering. From diesel fuel to hydrogen sulfide to heavy metals like mercury and arsenic, the list is a survey of carcinogens, skin and respiratory irritants.I was brought to tears by a woman from Silt, Colo., who told the story of how she became ill after her family’s well was contaminated with chemicals from a nearby drilling operation, and how she hoped that her daughter, who was breast-feeding at the time, did not develop the same health problems.As a child on family vacations, I was unaware of the tense dynamic between the government, oil and gas companies and local residents. My parents owned a ranch in Nevada, but because the Silver State is not rich in energy deposits, they never had to contend with the problems faced by the residents of the Four Corners, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming or the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana. I was also blind to the poisoning and sickness that can be caused by these operations.But I know now, and I can’t help thinking that there must be a better solution to our energy needs. The fossil fuel “addiction” President Bush famously mentioned cannot be dealt with by opening more Western lands to drilling or by doing so faster and with less oversight, as this administration seems determined to do. The way we manage our public lands is a laughable contrast to the biblical directives to “till and keep” the garden, to “love your neighbor as yourself.”Whatever faith we profess, we all share this planet. I hope and pray that all those in power over oil and gas drilling will reflect deeply on the blessings of our public lands and work vigilantly to protect them – and us. Amen.Christine Joekenga is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She has just finished a tour as Western Lands Fellow in the Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches in Washington, D.C., and is now pursuing a graduate degree in writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.