OIL & GAS BOOMS
Oil and Gas:
The first Wyoming oil well was drilled in 1883 in central Wyoming outside Lander. Although Wyoming’s abundant oil reserves were well-known, the state’s small population and isolation from markets initially made it difficult for oil producers to be competitive. However, with construction of pipelines, and increased demand bringing higher prices, the situation changed in the last half of the twentieth century.
Wyoming is currently in an oil and gas economic boom. In 2002, tax revenues from the oil and natural gas industry in Sweetwater County were, for the first time, greater than those from trona and coal mining (gas produced 40 percent of the income, oil 10 percent, trona 23 percent, and coal 11 percent). According to a U.S. Government Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson, “Oil and gas industry sources predict that southwest Wyoming will become the major natural gas producing region in the United States by the year 2010.” As many as 6,000 to 20,000 gas wells — both conventional natural gas and coal bed methane — are projected over the next 20 years in the Red Desert and the Upper Green River Basin. Five thousand of those wells are already under consideration. That compares with a total of about 13,000 wells drilled in the area in the past 100 years. Along with the wells would come thousands of miles of new roads and pipelines, gas processors and other facilities. Oil field workers and their families are arriving in the area. Local businesses that support oil field operations are experiencing new growth and jobs are being created.
Opponents to the expansion of the oil and gas industry argue that by approving development projects on such a huge scale, the BLM is perpetuating Wyoming's history of boom-and-bust economies that ultimately threaten the stability of local communities. It is true that Wyoming has seen many economic booms in its history. The first boom came in the 1820s with the mountain men and their pursuit of beaver. The building of the transcontinental railroad in 1868 brought significant numbers of permanent residents to the state. The cattle and coal mining industries boomed in the 1870s and 1880s. Several events combined to produce the largest boom in southwest Wyoming history in the 1970s and 80s: the construction of the Jim Bridger coal-fired electrical plant, the opening of Black Buttes open pit coal mine, and the construction of numerous trona mines west of Green River. After seeing local infrastructure resources stretched to the breaking point during this period, city and county planners developed plans to soften the impact of future unanticipated growth.
In addition to strains that booms make on the economy, some opponents fear that the oil and gas construction may damage the environment. Southwest Wyoming remains one of the richest wildlife complexes in the continental United States, containing an array of wintering big game species, estimated at nearly 111,000 animals: 15,000 elk, 52,000 mule deer, 40,000 pronghorn antelope, 3,500 moose, 100 white-tailed deer and 150 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The proposed drilling of wells in the Jack Morrow Hills in the Red Desert has received national attention. Many people think that industrial development will inevitably cause long-term damage to the natural wealth of this sensitive high desert ecosystem. Oil industry spokesmen, however, contend that “... the impact to the area will be much lower than expected.” They note the area has had various levels of development over the last half century with little impact to wildlife and habitat. The opponents counter that the proposed development threatens to irreversibly fragment critical wildlife migration routes, winter ranges, elk calving grounds and sage grouse nesting areas.
It does not matter where one stands on some of the questions that have troubled our country since it was first settled — whether natural resources should be developed?, whether wildlife should be protected at the expense of human society?, and whether economic booms are good or bad? — what is undeniable is that the new wells with their associated equipment, service roads and pipelines, will change Wyoming’s high desert country for years to come.
Gary Perkins, Exhibits Coordinator, 2003.
Mackey, Mike. Black Gold: Patterns in the Development of Wyoming’s Oil Industry. Western History Publications, Casper, 1997.
Western, Sam. Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search For Its Soul. Homestead, Moose, 2002.
Gearino, Jeff. “Opponents to Hills Drilling Speak Out.” (http://www.casperstartribune.net/articles/2003/04/11/news/wyoming)
Wyoming Outdoor Council. “WOC Challenges Environmentally Destructive Drilling on Sensitive Public Lands.” (http://www.wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/frontline/summer2001/oilgas.html.)
Associated Press. “Energy Drillers Seek More Gas.” (http://www.montanaforum.com/rednews/2003/03/17/build/fuels/cbmdrill.php?nnn=6.)
Collins, Katherine. ”Wyoming’s Red Desert: 15 million Acres of Contention.” (http://www.hcn.org/servlets/hcn.Article?article_id=1884.)
Absolon, Molly. “All That Glitters is Not Gold.” (http://www.nols.edu/alumni/leader/03spring/allthatglitters.shtml)