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Colorado River
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The Western
Energy Boom

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the Rural West

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The Country Life Commission


Hunting a New Kind of Fugitive in the West

In exploring the hidden sides of the western shale oil and gas boom, the Rural West Initiative has looked at the impact of energy extraction on communities in North Dakota and Wyoming: on housing and infrastructure, strains on health care, disruption of local banks and the importance of refining state fiscal policies

With our video feature "The New Western Fugitives," we now turn our focus on a side effect of gas extraction that is literally invisible: the build-up of “fugitive” emissions that contribute to high levels of ozone gas. 

According to the EPA:

“Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

Along the Green River in Wyoming and Utah, we look at two basins that have some of the worst ozone pollution in the nation. They have recorded ozone levels that sometimes exceed peak conditions in traffic-choked cities like Los Angeles. Following on a lawsuit by a citizens' group in Pinedale, Wyoming, the EPA has declared Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin a "non-attainment zone" for ozone, a ruling that could carry sanctions against the industry if conditions don't improve. Further south, in Utah’s Uintah Basin, the EPA is still studying the problem, along with partners from NOAA, Utah’s Department of Air Quality, and the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists are frustrated with the delays and say some regulators seem to be in a state of denial.

But where does the ozone come from? Ozone creation in these areas requires two ingredients: volatile organic compounds, called VOCs, and nitrous oxides, known as NOx. Sun reflected off snow cooks the compounds into ozone, which can be trapped by a lid of warm air – an "inversion" – and threaten public health. 

We visit a gas field with an inspector from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and see just how tricky it can be to contain ozone precursors, as fumes escape from old wells, blowback from new wells, leaky pipes and valves, and from evaporation ponds where water produced from drilling is stored. VOCs sources are often elusive, and the technology used to find them is outmoded. 

We look at some promising new technologies for identifying hot spots, and visit a gas field run by the energy giant Anadarko, which is trying to get ahead of future regulation by clamping down on emissions. 

Still, the outlook is uncertain for containing ozone precursors. This winter, ozone readings in the Utah basin were again very high, sometimes nearly twice the amount allowed by the Clean Air Act. But it takes three consecutive years of data for the EPA to declare that a region has unacceptably high ozone levels. An EPA spokesman says such a declaration could not happen before 2015.


To follow some of our previous reporting on the western energy boom:


Last modified Wed, 24 Apr, 2013 at 22:23

Are Western Communities Getting a Fair Return on Energy Development?

From the interactive video "An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier"

With sky-high energy prices driving new oil and gas exploration in the American West, states are struggling to keep pace with critical infrastructure and revenue policies. Western North Dakota is in the throes of a raging energy boom, as hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling techniques coax valuable hydrocarbons out of long-dormant oilfields. But as towns like Williston see their populations double virtually overnight and vital farm-to-market roads crumble under 18-wheel trucks, how best to ensure that local communities can survive the onslaught, and to reap rewards that benefit the whole state, long after the boom is over?

Working with Montana-based Headwaters Economics, The Rural West Initiative has published a comprehensive multimedia report, combining a rigorous economic and policy analysis with a 31-minute interactive video documentary called "An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier." 

The video feature looks at three rural western communities at different stages of the process of energy development: North Dakota, where a recent drilling frenzy has pushed it to the third-highest oil production in the U.S.; western Wyoming, where residents are coping with air pollution and habitat destruction after a decade of oil and gas exploration; and eastern Wyoming, where residents of one of the state's poorest communities pin their hopes on a boom on the local Niobrara formation.

The video report is published in an innovative format, an interactive player that presents supplementary information at key points in the documentary.  We will be sharing the source code for the interactive player, which leverages the latest HTML5 technology, under an open source, creative commons license for noncommercial reuse.


Last modified Mon, 1 Oct, 2012 at 9:38

Drilling to Energy Independence: Can the West Save Us from Foreign Oil Imports?

(Photo: John Amos via Flickr)

By Dustin Bleizeffer

True to the frontier attitude still prevalent here, oil and gas officials say there’s a treasure of fossil fuels in the West that will take America closer to energy independence than any plan conceived in Washington D.C.

Story Written In Collaboration With

Wyoming Politics & Policy

While speaking to a group of energy industry leaders in Wyoming recently, Chesapeake Energy’s John Dill said his company — and other oil and gas developers — fully intends to implement their own American energy plan.

“The country has waited long enough for a national energy policy,” Dill told attendees of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s October meeting in Laramie. “So we’re going to take the bull by the horn and do it ourselves.”

Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends (1949-2010)

(Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends)

Chesapeake Energy’s plan, “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” proclaims America’s “$400 billion a year” in foreign oil imports is “fiscally insane.” Toward American energy independence, Chesapeake created a $1 billion venture fund to convert transportation fleets from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG), aiming at the No. 1 driver for oil imports. The company invested another $150 million in Sundrop Fuels, which is developing what it calls a non-food biomass “green gasoline.”

“We believe American energy needs to be supplied 100 percent by domestic resources,” said Dill, director of Chesapeake’s corporate development and government relations.

With a huge presence in America’s current onshore drilling boom, Chesapeake Energy is the second largest natural gas producer in the nation. It’s recent acquisitions in the Denver-Julesburg Basin and Powder River Basin are part of an industry-wide shift toward developing shale oil.

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 12:16

Cow Town to Boom Town: “A Feeding Frenzy”

The new $20 million aquatic center in Pinedale

By Claire Woodard

The influx of wealth from the gas boom has brought a lot of new infrastructure, investment, and business opportunities to Sublette County, Wyoming. But it has also inspired an unfamiliar and sometimes troubling response among residents: greed.

Last modified Thu, 14 Jul, 2011 at 14:22

Cow Town to Boom Town: “Ambivalence”

By Claire Woodard

Residents of Pinedale, Wyoming have decidedly mixed feelings about the area’s gas boom. Though the boom has brought wealth and much opportunity to the community, it has also presented a host of challenges, from a transformed town culture to environmental degradation.

In “Ambivalence,” Pinedale locals share their thoughts on the boom’s benefits and its drawbacks.

Last modified Thu, 14 Jul, 2011 at 14:25