Who will clean up when the boom is over?
Sometime in the 1950s, an oil and gas boom hit Big Piney, Wyo. I was 12, and I remember the excitement of seeing new kids in school, big trucks on the dusty roads and lots of people in the cafes and on the streets.I remember summer evenings when my dad loaded us into the pickup – Mom, my two sisters and me – to bounce up to the pasture where an oil company was drilling on our land. At the huge derrick we piled out and dad went over to talk to the crew. We heard descriptions about coming out of the hole and changing bits, and we learned that each crew was four men – three roughnecks bossed by a driller – and that there were three crews every 24 hours bossed by a man called a tool-pusher. We heard about mud and “frack-ing” and all kinds of words meaningless to us. The roughnecks were often college kids trying to earn good money through the summers. Dirt-smudged, wearing greasy clothes and hard hats, they seemed rakish and proud of themselves. They glanced sideways at my sister Betty, a pretty teenager.I remember that Dad would stand with his hands on his hips and watch and listen to the pounding of that rig, and when we started home in the truck he’d say, “I don’t need to be rich, but there are just some things we could do if we had a little extra money. Like, I’ve always wanted to take you all to Ha-woy-a. Things like that.” Hawaii, he meant, but that was how he said it: Ha-woy-a. Later, when the well was pronounced a dry hole, I remember Dad’s disappointment: “The oil is there, they say. It’s just that it’s in the sands. They don’t know how to get at it. Someday, maybe.” So we never got to go to Ha-woy-a. But be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. Sure enough, somebody found a way to bring the oil up through the sands, and today Sublette County and much of southwest Wyoming are in another boom, bigger than we could ever have imagined. In fact, Sublette County has some of the world’s richest natural gas and oil reserves. Last summer, I visited my sisters, who still live in the county. We took a bag of sandwiches and a thermos, and we drove out of Pinedale into the Pinedale Anticline, along the Green River and through the spider web of gravel roads where there used to be ranches. We wandered along the ridges of the mesa and the Jonah Field until we finally ended up in Big Piney. We tried to remember who used to own this ranch or that one, who used to live where, whatever became of that family. It was hard, because now it all seemed like an industrial zone with hardly any people.Our Dad had been a progressive businessman, a rancher who knew that progress is not without peril. But he could never have visualized the impact of development on the sparsely populated Green River Valley; he could not have imagined entire sections becoming quadrants of rigs, noisy pumper stations, pipelines, roads and bright lights.In that earlier boom, Dad worried about the rough crowd that followed the oilfield work and the pressures it brought to our little town. As a school board member and a legislator, he saw the need for affordable housing for teachers, and he was instrumental in the school’s purchase of land to build housing for teachers near the schools. He worried about booze and car wrecks and wild characters, but he could not have foreseen methamphetamine, air pollution, water pollution or rural sprawl. He was interested in wildlife for its own sake, but could not have imagined conversations about “habitat.” He would never have visualized recreation as an industry or the base for an economy.Dad would have been fascinated by the technologies of directional drilling, global positioning and computerized databases. Knowing how hard a Wyoming wind can blow, he’d have been ready and eager for wind-powered energy. What he wouldn’t have approved of is a self-indulgent nation that consumes nonrenewable resources without a backward glance.Lots of people have by now “gone to Hawaii” on the mineral wealth of Sublette County. They’ve left behind those who struggle with the immediate and future impacts of this latest boom. And all the jobs, from school board member to county commissioner, still need doing to keep this place alive. The problem is that so few people are left to keep the community alive and pick up the pieces when this boom inevitably fizzles.Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She and her husband are ranchers in Greybull, Wyo.