There was a lot of hubbub around the West when NASA revealed the beautiful "Black Marble" satellite images of America and the world, showing the intensity of our settlements through the brilliance of our electrical lights. So much of the eastern and southern U.S. is lit, and the lights only began to fade as you reach the northern Great Plains, and then look to the northern Rocky Mountains, which remain fairly dark.
But it was a spot of glaring light, burning like a huge fire in North Dakota and far eastern Montana, that caught people's eye. This fire is the booming Bakken oil fields, the economic superpower of the Plains, centered near Williston, North Dakota. The light is literally fire, the burning or "flaring off" into the atmosphere of 240 million cubic feet of natural gas, according to the story linked above, each and every day, enough gas to heat half a million homes. Natural gas prices are low right now, as supplies have exceeded demands, and the export terminals planned to ship our gas to Asia and Europe are not yet finished. So it burns.
For almost ten years now we've covered the issues surrounding natural gas drilling and development and big game and other wildlife: loss of winter range, pollution of streams and rivers, loss of hunting opportunities as mule deer and antelope herds give way to a dense matrix of roads, well pads and truck traffic.
Plentiful supplies of natural gas, and the technology to bring it forth from deep in the earth, has been a blessing to our economy and to our employment figures. But it is not without a cost. And that cost was always supposed to be lessened by new and better ways to get the gas without sacrificing wildlife and other resources. We as a nation were going to become hyper-efficient-- the model for the world--in using our energy resources. A few years ago I wrote a post for this blog about how efficient appliances mean bigger mule deer and more habitat, because we don't have to drill our public lands for what we don't need to burn.
Last week, Bob Marshall wrote here of the plans to drill from 15,500 to 18,000 new gas wells in the "mule deer factory" of the White River country of Colorado, winter range to our nation's largest elk herd, holdout of imperiled sage grouse, largest herd of mule deer left on earth, beloved by generations of sportsmen. Such development will cost us much of the landscape and an estimated 30% of the mule deer herd, though such estimates are vague--the mule deer on the Mesa outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, site of another huge gas play, have declined by more than 60%--and no, folks, coyotes are not the culprits for the devastation. Only someone who has never been there and witnessed the development would say that.
We are accepting these sacrifices, and planning new ones (on the Atlantic Rim of Wyoming to name only one) even though, right now, we are burning off 240 million cubic feet of North Dakota gas every day? Really?
As a hunter and a fishermen and a reporter (and gas consumer) who has written on these issues for over a decade, I have come to accept and celebrate the finding and development of cleaner burning natural gas--even as I have tried my best to advocate for such wildlife saving strategies as directional drilling techniques to limit the miles of roads and the number of well pads, ideas for core habitat preservation such as the TRCP's Backcountry Conservation Areas, the reapplication of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act to the drilling process, phased development of gas fields, where one area is reclaimed before another is developed, and on and on.
I've been pretty dumb, I know. That great fire of wasted natural gas, visible from the black reaches of space, is a tough thing to witness. We'll flare that North Dakota treasure house of gas into our atmosphere, and later, when the price of gas goes up, we'll bring the heavy industry and the roads and traffic into my big-game hunting country here in Montana, and yours in Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Alabama. We'll just go get more gas. What incentive is there to conserve it? We'll sell that gas on the global market, so we can compete for our own resources with our economic rivals in Asia, and we'll live with the losses, the billions of gallons of water, the landscapes, the hunting. Some of us will still hunt the White River country when there are 15,000 gas wells there. A lot of us will choose to go somewhere else, and realize that the hunting in the American West is not nearly as endless as it looked, once upon a time.
When the gas is gone, we'll try to explain it to our children, try to explain what it was we thought we were doing with our energy and our water and land and the hunting and fishing that should have been theirs. We can tell them that we abdicated our responsibility as citizens. We let somebody else make the rules. We blew it.
Or we can start making the rules ourselves, right now, while gas is still so cheap that we are lighting the skies with it, to limit the impacts of energy development on our wildlife and our hunting.