Author on the right. Undergraduate research assistant and anthropology major, Tim Grieve-Carlson, in the middle.  John Fenton, local farmer and Chair of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens on the left.

This marks my third summer in Wyoming investigating the state’s gas industry.  Funded by a NASA Environmental Science and Civic Engagement grant secured by the Drew University Environmental Studies and Sustainability program, I’ve been fortunate to meet with personnel from the Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, Wyoming Departments of Environmental Quality, Game and Fish, and Public Health; politicians, journalists, energy employees, and local activists and ranchers.  This support also enabled Drew University to establish an official community partnership with the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC), providing opportunities for students to assist Powder River members in air pollution monitoring and GIS mapping of gas emission points.

Like numerous other states, Wyoming’s gas production has surged with the exploitation of unconventional gas through hydraulic fracturing.  In Wyoming, as in the US more generally, unconventional gas is considered to represent a path out of a rocky economy, a means of “energy independence”, and a dimension of our country’s national security. For some, it also represents a bridge to a sustainable energy future (although the “greenness” of natural gas production has been called into question). But in Wyoming, where startling amounts of money can be made at nearly every link in the labor chain during an energy boom, the possible future benefits pale in comparison to the exigencies of the present—whether it be the financial desires of corporations or the urgent needs of families in rural Wyoming to make ends meet.  Much of the social context and complexity of this research was encapsulated by a man in Buffalo concerned about the environmental impacts of the gas industry, but who was simultaneously empathetic with people from the Powder River Basin leasing rights to their land to gas companies. His explanation: “They were a starved out bunch.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that over 26,000 gas wells (with plans for thousands more) and the nation’s number two ranking in terms of gas reserves are reassuring facts to most people in Wyoming.

Beyond the potential for employment, the energy industry pays property and severance taxes to the state, which is not forgotten by a citizenry that doesn’t pay state income taxes. Moreover, any visitor to Wyoming can attest to the contributions of energy companies to civic life—from recreation centers to new buildings on the University of Wyoming campus.  For many Wyoming residents, the energy industry is a generous member of local communities.  No doubt, this munificence of the energy companies contributes to the reluctance of Wyoming citizens to critique the industry. Interestingly, a wide variety of informants have commented on the passivity of Wyoming citizens, including its politicians.  Just as activists are frustrated by a lack of initiative to critique corporations, some supporters of pro-energy policies are frustrated by a lack of resolve to demand more from companies for the right to work in Wyoming (such as requiring companies to pay for the construction of transmission lines).  On both sides, then, there is a feeling that Wyoming isn’t standing tall enough in the saddle.

There are some Wyoming residents who consider the gas fields to be “national sacrifice zones.” This minority has implored courts and legislatures to consider the environmental legacy of this industry and the potentially disastrous events set into motion by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (the “Halliburton Loophole”), which declared hydraulic fracturing an environmentally benign procedure and exempted it from federal regulation. Despite the fact that groups such as the PRBRC have been involved in the gas discussion for over a decade, they have been rendered invisible outside of their region by their far-flung location and the pro-energy Wyoming politicians who have not granted their efforts legitimacy.

Two recent situations have brought Wyoming into clearer focus on the national radar. First, hydraulic fracturing became controversial in the East, leading people (including Gasland creator Josh Fox) to look West to learn about the controversial process.  Secondly, late in 2011 the EPA—in a statement on the preliminary findings of a study begun at the request of local landowners—declared that the water contamination in Pavillion may have been caused by the hydraulic fracturing of Encana Oil and Gas, a Canadian energy producer.  In one fell swoop a small town located on the Wind River Indian Reservation became the focus of intense international scrutiny. For over a year, parties on all sides of the debate waited anxiously for the EPA’s final decision, scheduled for September 2013. Then, in a remarkable turn of events, on June 20 the EPA announced that it would not be completing the Pavillion study, but instead would be handing the reins over to the state of Wyoming to complete the study, financed by a $1.5 million grant from Encana.

For some, this turnabout betrayed the scientific flimsiness of the original 2011 EPA statement and placed the job back where it belonged in the first place: in the hands of the state.  For the people with contaminated water, this decision leaves them feeling frustrated and abandoned. The EPA’s interest in their case provided them with a glimmer of hope, after years of requests for help from the state, that they would be taken seriously by a governmental agency.  Entrusting the investigation to the state feels like starting over again since, in their opinion, the state values gas revenues over the health of its citizens.

Wyoming is often held up as a repository of quintessentially American character traits. To an extent this is true, but not without important contradictions. This is a state where rugged individualism and self-reliance are celebrated, but where people also display deference in the face of big business and receive large amounts of financial support from the federal government.  It’s a state that worships cowboys, but hasn’t made much money off cattle since the 19th century. How, I wonder, do Wyoming cultural sensibilities shape regulatory practices and understandings of citizenship in the age of hydraulic fracturing?  And what can we learn from this case study of Wyoming about the contested meaning of democracy in the US?

Marc Boglioli is associate professor of anthropology at Drew University. 

Please send A&E news and reports to Amelia Moore at a.moore4@miami.edu.

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