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Each Other—Where We Are

When Cowboys Cry

In today's Wild West, energy corporations are the new outlaws

by Sandra Steingraber

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of Orion magazine




LAST NOVEMBER, at the annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings, Montana, I watched a cowboy cry.

As someone born east of the Mississippi, I’m aware that I may have my vocabulary words mixed up here. The crying man called himself a rancher, not a cowboy. But he had the hat. The legs in the blue jeans were bowed. And he said things like, Sometimes you have to ride with the brand, and sometimes you have to speak yer mind.

Which sounded like cowboy talk to me.

What had him choked up was the ongoing ruination of the West caused by fossil fuel extraction. Coal mining. Coal-bed methane. Oil wells. Oil sands pipelines from Canada. And the newest atrocity: high volume, slickwater, horizontal hydrofracturing, which blows up deep layers of shale to get at natural gas bubbles. Science magazine describes fracking this way: under extreme pressure, large volumes of chemical-laced water are used to “create a football-shaped cloud of fractured shale 300 meters long.”

The prospect of turning fresh water into a club to smash bedrock into footballish clouds had—along with coal mining—sunk a whole roomful of men into sorrow. They spoke about artesian springs that had stopped flowing. The difficult business of irrigating alfalfa. And something called subsidence—downward motion of the earth caused by collapsing tunnels or changes in pressure from gas extraction. Subsidence can roll boulders through people’s front doors.

There was a panel called “Reflecting on the Importance of the Good Neighbor Agreement.” There was a presentation about how to convince the state of Montana to study the environment before moving forward with destroying it (by permitting a coal mine at Otter Creek) and an update on the attempt to persuade TransCanada to withdraw its application for a waiver to use thinner-than-standard pipe for ferrying tar sands across the prairie.

The task force was pleased to report its success in this last effort.

Many conference participants looked like they had walked right out of central casting. And that created for me moments of cognitive dissonance. Their mild-mannered activities did not square, in my mind, with what cowboys do. I kept flashing on movie scenes. Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon dispatching a gang of murderers. Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland in The Cowboy Way lassoing a thug to the end of a speeding train. Good riddance to you, bud.

From what I could see in Montana, the torch of Wild West lawlessness is now being carried by Wall Street–backed energy corporations, while the real-life cowboys are trying to find things in the law that will slow down the rate of plundering, raise the cost of plundering, or make the plundering marginally less accident-prone. And given that fossil fuel extraction in general—and fracking in particular—is exempt from many federal laws, the guys in the white hats are having a tough time of it. They’re not exactly running the plunderers out of town.

Meanwhile, an entire way of life is disappearing so fast that the son of one rancher was interviewing for a job with the energy company that had wrecked his father’s land. I mean, you can’t make a living on the range anymore.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings is the tallest brick building in the world. At the end of the day, my son and I rode the elevator up to the top—which is the kind of thing you do when traveling with a nine-year-old—and we found ourselves inside the Billings Petroleum Club. In no time at all, a security guard—or -somebody acting like one—steered us back to the elevator shaft. On the way down, we passed the field office for Stealth Energy. Its logo: a cartoon gusher.

But as soon as we were on the ground floor, I wanted to go back up in order to verify what I’d seen in the dimly lit chambers of the Petroleum Club while being hustled out of it: a March of Dimes poster. Of all the boldface names hanging on the walls up there, this one interested me most because, twenty-three stories below, I had just given a lecture about the evidence linking exposure to fossil fuel combustion products to shorter pregnancies. Preterm birth is the nation’s leading cause of disability. Says the March of Dimes. So what was it doing inside the Petroleum Club? I found my answer in its newsletter, Gusher: in two days hence, the club was hosting a March of Dimes fundraiser.

Memo to Stealth Energy and the editorial staff of the Petroleum Club: Even my nine-year-old knows that gushers are the result of failed blowout preventers. They kill people. Memo to the March of Dimes: Take my name off your mailing list.

The desperate rush to force the earth’s remaining fossil fuels out of their fossily graveyards—which requires ever more toxic methods of extraction—affects, of course, everyone everywhere, and crosses all cultural and party lines. Two weeks after the Montana meetings, I was standing in a forest next to a swarthy man carrying a gun. He, too, looked like a character actor—from a movie about the French Resistance. We were in the right place—the cave-riddled foothills of the Pyrenees that had served as a refuge for anti-Nazi partisans and, centuries before that, for the defiant Cathars facing the Pope’s murderous army. (The man with the gun was hunting wild boar.)

Like Montana, southern France is also targeted for hydrofracking, along with the vales of England and the forests of Poland. And, a few days later, in the lobby outside the European Parliament in Brussels, I saw someone cry about it. That was the week that stories about fracking broke in the international press, and European environmentalists were scrambling to figure out what laws in the European Union might apply to this new technology. Like the sons and daughters of Montana’s cowboys, the sons and daughters of the Allied Forces were having a hard time finding legal traction.

The British journal The Ecologist reached a similar conclusion in an investigative report about the European plans of Halliburton, Chevron, Exxon, and others. Although fracking in the United States is linked to toxic pollution and social conflict, notes The Ecologist, the technology is being rapidly exported. Fracking “exceeds the government regulatory process.” It is “set to continue.” It is, perhaps, “too powerful to oppose.”

Really? Drill, baby, drill is more powerful than the Wehrmacht? So, now I’m looking for Marshal Kane and Winston Churchill, too. Meanwhile, in February, the un-legendary city of Buffalo, New York, quietly voted to ban fracking inside its borders. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has done the same. And my town board in Ulysses, New York, is, at this writing, considering its own fracking ban, after more than a thousand residents (of the three thousand registered voters who live here) submitted a petition. All such communities who take this step are inviting a host of legal challenges. So we are told. Vive la résistance.

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Sandra Steingraber lives in Tomkins County, New York, where the popular local expression "no fracking way" roughly translates to "have a nice day."

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