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Wyoming: Equal Rights state no more

Here's a familiar story: There's a poor, sparsely settled country, coveted by no one, whose inhabitants nevertheless love their harsh, barren land.

They've scratched out a marginal living for generations, their community sustained by an intricate web of familial ties built up over time. They don't have much; they don't need much.

And then the oil companies come. Beneath the land, there are enormous hydrocarbon reservoirs, worth literally tens of billions of dollars. It's easy to extract; looks as if these poor folks are going to be rich, right?

Nope. You see, the central government of this land, which had never paid the slightest attention to this worthless province, dusts off some arcane laws passed a century and a half before, and tells the poor yokels that they may own the land, but the government owns everything underneath it.

So the power barons cut deals with the oil companies, who are free to do what they want. They drill wherever they please, destroying pastures, polluting streams and groundwater, rendering the land uninhabitable.

The poor natives appeal to the courts, to the legislature, to the government itself; they're ignored.

Sounds like Nigeria, doesn't it? Or maybe Angola, or Ecuador, or Peru -- corrupt oligarchs getting together with rapacious multinational companies to screw the peasants. But it's not.

It's right here in America, right next door to us in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. The Bushies may have been thwarted in their attempts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they're about to utterly trash 8 million acres of northeast Wyoming in order to extract trillions of cubic feet of coalbed methane. Let's put this amount of acreage into perspective: Colorado Springs comprises 186 square miles. The size of the Wyoming project will be 67 times bigger.

When Wyoming was settled, the federal government, which had seized the land from its aboriginal inhabitants, transferred title to 19th-century homesteaders. Unfortunately for the homesteaders' descendents, the government kept the mineral rights.

So when gas was discovered a few years back, the government cut its own deal with the oil companies. And thanks to laws enacted in the distant past, a landowner has no power to restrict or hinder mining operations on his or her property.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the heavy in this little morality play. In the last five years, 10,000 wells have been drilled. In addition, BLM proposes that the companies be allowed to drill 30,000 new wells, construct 18,000 miles of new roads, and lay 10,000 miles of pipeline.

What were once wide-open spaces, a pristine America of vast cattle ranches, antelope herds and sagebrush-covered hills, will become a nightmarish post-industrial landscape.

Worst of all, recovering coalbed methane involves pumping out enormous quantities of brackish groundwater, too saline for livestock or for irrigation. This water is simply dumped in makeshift reservoirs, useful to no one.

But by pumping it out, existing freshwater aquifers become polluted. Result: ranchers have no water, either for themselves or for their livestock, and they're out of business. Land that may have been in their families for 130 years becomes worthless. And are they owed any compensation from the government, or from the drillers? Nope -- so far, the courts have refused to grant the landowners any relief.

But what about state government? Surely, those flinty Republicans, property-rights conservatives every one, will side with the ranchers? Nope. You see, gas royalties have already turned a looming deficit in the Wyoming budget to a $730 million surplus.

And $730 million has a way of making the travails of a few thousand ranchers look mighty unimportant.

Who knows, maybe they're right. Perhaps those ranchers can just move to Cheyenne, or Denver, or Colorado Springs, and get jobs in real estate, or fast food, or whatever -- after all, we've got plenty of jobs.

So let's get real. Cheap, abundant energy is what's keeping this country afloat. Who cares what happens to a bunch of cowboys and their scraggly-ass chunk of prairie?

A lot of us care. A lot of us think that the American West has been looted, despoiled and defiled. Whatever is unique, irreplaceable or beautiful in this land is of little value if it gets in the way of making money.

The new oligarchs, chanting their mantras of economic growth, don't seem to notice; they're getting ready to retire and move to Hawaii.

And as for those ranchers, the BLM has come up with a solution to their problems. They should just take those big, stinkin' saltwater ponds and ... raise catfish!!!!

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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