Day 3 – Texas to Wyoming
From the Shale Gas fields of Texas the team flew United Airlines to Denver and hopped straight into the cars heading North through Colorado, into Wyoming and up to the town of Riverton.
The flight put the extent of the of the Shale Gas industry in the southern United States into perspective, with thousands of wells dotted across the landscape from rural residential areas of Dish, across the urban areas of Fort Worth and into the agricultural areas north of Dallas. What was concerning to see was the extent of irrigated agriculture adjacent to the gas fields.
Pivot irrigation feeding corn and maize crops, much to supply the feedlots across the Southern United states, were a stunning green against the arid landscape of Texas, Oklahoma and Southern Colorado. You have to wonder about the longevity of this so-called co-existence with the potential for contamination impacts in groundwater to foreseeably impact on agricultural productivity and quality of water and food supply.
The take away experience for me from my time assessing the gas industry around Dallas and Fort Worth is that the gas industry has come to dominate not just landscape and community, but is now part of the zeitgeist of Texas. It has won over the political decision makers, the pro-industry policy settings are in place and now big gas is rolling out on a huge scale. It is on TV, it sponsors the football team, they operate next to schools and shopping centres. Gas is a short term revenue stream that US governments and corporations have rushed headlong to exploit, but many, and especially farmers, have come to see it as damaging to environmental and community health in the longer term. But the question no-one seems to be asking is at what is the true cost and what next? Who will own the legacy this industry leaves behind? The multi-national energy corporations?
Having left shale behind – we moved into coal country. The Colorado and Wyoming regions sit over a number of coal basins with the main target of this part of the tour being the Powder River Basin which runs through the heart of Wyoming.
Heading out of Denver, above the Denver Coal Basin, it only took a few minutes before we came across our first wells. Driving north we saw just how widespread coal seam gas is already around the area. On the outskirts of town derek pump heads dot the ladscape, only 100 or so metres apart. We could see as many as 20 at a time on the flat hay and corn fields that lay between residential estates. Like Forth Worth, many we within 100 metres of homes.
What was interesting was that very few of the pumps seemed operational and although it was early afternoon on Tuesday none of the drill rigs we saw were turning and no cars were moving around on the well pads. The rig sizes and pads were typically smaller but more numerous when compared to the larger multi-well shale gas operations in Texas.
What is clear from everything we have seen so far on the trip is that this industry only works if they can run a landscape scale grid of interconnected wells across the gas field. They need many and they need them regardless of the existing land use, so they can extract the maximum out of the field. This should serve as a warning of what this industry would look like across the cropping lands of the Liverpool and Moore Plains. There is no such thing as a few disparate wells, and even multi-well operations require many pads, compressor stations and the network of pipes and roads.
An industrial yard just a bit further up the road and still on the outskirts of town with 50 plus containers that we now know are the movable frack tanks that house the fracking water and fluids.
Further out of town and the wells seems to stop. The Denver Basin is quite small, but even still accessing that gas required quite a lot of wells. Further out of town the cropping stopped too and it was clear that, as is often the case where there is coal, there is high quality agricultural land above.
Continuing North as we pass into Wyoming with the shadow of the Rocky Mountains to the West we are heading towards the main coal bed methane reserves in the US. Around 50% of gas from coal seams in the US comes from the Rocky Mountains. Many of the aerial photos that have come to symbolize the impacts of this industry on the landscape have come from this area. Over the next week I will get a chance to talk with many more communities at the grassroots, who are dealing with the impacts of this industry.