Fracking on the Range

Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)

Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)

Oil and gas companies are on a drilling bender across Western public lands but surrounding communities aren’t interested in the hangover.

My story for Sierra Magazine, July/August 2013 issue — “Busting Out of Boom and Bust” — looks at how fracking and drilling has gotten lax oversight on public lands, and how towns across the West are fighting back to protect forests and rangelands, rivers and water supplies.

A quick excerpt:

From the growing mountain town of Carbondale, Jock Jacober and his three sons operate Crystal River Meats, processing grass-fed beef that he and other local ranchers raise. Started in 1999, the specialty business has grown to distribute to Whole Foods and Natural Grocers supermarkets. Most of the ranchers rely on U.S. Forest Service grazing leases in Coal Basin and other designated roadless parcels in the Thompson Divide. “For 100 years, guys have been running cattle up there,” Jacober says. “It’s a good place to grow food for the valley.”

Jacober, the son of a petroleum geologist, says, “I’ve watched energy development all my life across the West.” …  In the past decade, companies have employed hydraulic fracturing—the use of chemical-laden fluids to crack open and reach shale-rock and tight-sands formations—to drill tens of thousands of oil and gas wells on private and public lands in western Colorado, and the industry isn’t done yet. This latest boom in the West’s energy cycle threatens the region’s landscape on a scale larger than any other.

While ranchers like Jacober hold grazing leases in the Thompson Divide, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has leased the mineral rights to the ground underneath for oil and gas exploration. Since 2008, Jacober and other locals have been working to protect the expansive public landscape.

“Virtually all of the guys we run with think that if you get development started up there, we’ll eventually be out of business,” says Jacober, who sits on the board of directors of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, local officials, farmers, river runners, hunters, and environmentalists. “There won’t be range for cattle anymore. It’ll be range for trucks hauling water and fracking fluid and for pipelines.”