An Extreme Energy Roadtrip’s Postcard from the Edge

Blowing the Tops off of Mountains, Fracturing Communities, Digging for Tar Sands in the Desert…

postcard-like image of an industrial scene, coal and smokephoto Galt Museum Archive

The view from a Cessna reveals some dirty secrets. Flying at 2,000 feet above the forests of Appalachia I can see what the steep, tree-fringed roads fail to show: unnatural flat tops, seams of coal exposed like black-topped runways, impoundments of foul water perched above homes and schools. A naked honesty is revealed. This is what we have done, what we continue to do. We deface the mountains, denature ecosystems.

This is probably not news to you. Appalachia has long been one of the centers of American energy extraction, a place whose history is almost synonymous with coal. Since the 1830s the region has shoveled 35 billion tons of coal into the furnace of our economy. This is often called “cheap” energy and, at $100/megawatt-hour, it is – as long as you don’t look too closely.

But when you get down on the ground (or up in the air, as the case may be), the costs come into focus. Mountaintop removal coal mining is just what it sounds like: Entire mountaintops are obliterated to reach thin seams of coal. The “overburden” – the mining industry’s term for rocks and soil – is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams, covering forests.

faded image of a fracking towerphoto Galt Museum Archive

In a way, it makes perfect sense. First we go after the resources that are easiest to extract. And then, to maintain our wolfish appetite for energy, we have to seek out the stuff that’s harder to reach. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a classic example. Another would be the strip mining used to extract bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. Additional cases include hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to get at shale gas and shale oil deposits.

Michael T. Klare, author of the book The Race for What’s Left, calls these kinds of extraction techniques “extreme energy.” He has written: “To ensure a continued supply of hydrocarbons – and the continued prosperity of the giant energy companies – successive administrations have promoted the exploitation of these extreme energy options with a striking disregard for the resulting dangers. By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever-increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe – something that has been far too little acknowledged.”

I, for one, want to acknowledge those risks.

This summer my partner and I took a three-month roadtrip across North America. We didn’t head for the national parks or wild and scenic areas, though we did pass through some beautiful scenery. Instead, our itinerary focused on the places that have been the most impacted by extreme energy extraction. We wanted to see the communities – “sacrifice zones,” they’re sometimes called – that have been scarred and scored by the ‘dozers and drill rigs. We wanted to learn about the people who live there.

You might remember that it wasn’t too long ago that “Peak Oil” was the buzz. We were warned that oil, as well as gas, were finite, and that we would soon reach a point beyond which global demand would exceed supply. This was supposed to be both a curse and a blessing. We would have to make a wrenching transition to renewable sources of energy, but we would be better off for it. Geology would save us from our own gluttony.

But now here we are, in 2013, and we remain firmly entrenched in fossil fuels. The peak has turned out to be more like a long, tortuous plateau, sustained by the steady production of harder to reach energy resources. In the United States and Canada, oil and gas production have actually increased since 2008, even as consumption has decreased and then flat-lined. What has allowed business as usual to continue? It’s not that we’ve “discovered” new oil and gas. Rather, technological breakthroughs and changes in the market have suddenly made extreme energy (“unconventional energy,” is the industry’s preferred term) economically viable.

postcard-like aerial image of a strip minephoto by Tara Lohan

Peak or no peak, extreme oil or conventional oil – it’s simply more of the same to a largely degraded planet and an atmosphere already burdened with greenhouse gases. If Peak Oil threatened a disruption of our oil-dependent lifestyles, the long Petroleum Plateau promises a continuation of that lifestyle – at the cost of disrupting the planet’s life systems.

“For the climate, the race for unconventional hydrocarbons is very bad news,” says Richard Heinberg, a prominent peak oil-er and author of Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. “The claims for shale gas and tight oil are a mish-mash of half-truth, exaggeration, and distortion. But they add up to a happy story that Americans want to believe – a story about the wonders of technology, the limitless abundance of nature, and the allure of the endless highway.”

Right now we’re speeding along that highway … but to what end? And at what cost? It turns out, if you veer off the highway and hit some of our country’s less traveled roads, you can see how the race to extract unconventional, extreme sources of energy is transforming communities.

The view from the edge, I can tell you, isn’t pretty.

Jared Lusk knows his job is one of the most dangerous in the world and he’s afraid … of losing it.

“I’m scared to death every morning when I wake up and go to the mine to get a pink slip,” he said. Lusk, 25, is an underground coal miner in West Virginia. Without coal, Lusk believes, there is no southern West Virginia: Mining, he says, is the cultural and economic lifeblood. He’s downright poetic about his allegiance. “When a miner cuts a piece of rock out in front of you, that’s a rock that no man in this world has ever seen,” he says. “Whenever you put your hand on that rock, you’ve touched a rock that no man in this world is ever going to touch. It’s a feeling of accomplishment. All I gotta do is drive by a house and see the light on and know, ‘Hey, that light’s on because of me.’”

Here we are, in 2013, still firmly entrenched in fossil fuels.

Lusk is parroting the company line. “Coal keeps the lights on” is the industry’s sound bite these days, propped up on yard signs throughout Kentucky and West Virginia. The talking point is a centerpiece of the coal industry’s efforts to counter what it calls “the war on coal.” The aggressors, supposedly, are President Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency, environmentalists. But tougher environmental and safety regulations aren’t coal’s only problem. The industry is in the dumps due mostly to the rock bottom prices for “natural” gas.

The coal industry has responded by shifting even more to mountaintop removal, now the dominant form of coal extraction in the region. There are nearly 700 surface mines across Appalachia, according to the US Department of Energy; in comparison, there are about 450 underground coalmines there. The mining industry prefers mountaintop removal because of basic economics. Blowing the top off of a mountain requires fewer workers than burrowing beneath one. The strip mining may be more destructive, but, for the mining companies, it’s more profitable.

Even Lusk has his problems with surface mining for coal. “You’re destroying habitat and everything else,” he says. “I don’t like going down the road, looking up and seeing a flat mountain. With underground coal mining, the only thing you’re killing is yourself.”

Not exactly. Once it’s out of the ground, coal becomes even more dangerous. According to the Clean Air Task Force, the smog and soot from coal-burning contributes to at least 13,000 premature deaths in the United States every year.

John Hanger wants to make sure you know exactly how many people die each year from coal. From 2008 to 2011 Hanger was the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. His tenure at the department occurred just as the fracking boom was starting to take off in the commonwealth. Now, Hanger is running for governor. When it comes to fracking, he has to do a careful dance.

faded image with a mine site, a sign that says, Danger Mine Site do not enter, and a title: Welcome to Utah's first Tar Sands MineTara Lohan

Hanger sees fracking as an economic boost and an environmental necessity, since burning methane is cleaner than burning oil or coal. But he is not blind to fracking’s impacts.

“When you sign a gas lease on your property, you aren’t bringing a quiet, good neighbor,” Hanger told me. “In the first year there is noise, trucks, some emissions from the diesel. There are a range of impacts even when things go right. It is an industrial process.”

Fracking a well can mean hundreds of truck trips day and night, nonstop, for weeks. Then there’s the toxic wastewater that’s either injected underground, shipped to treatment facilities, put in evaporation ponds, or, in some horrific cases, illegally dumped in creeks, rivers, and storm drains. There’s also air pollution from diesel trucks and gas compressors, fugitive dust, gas flaring, and the evaporation of chemical-laced water when left at the surface.

These are some of the things John Hanger includes on his list of negatives associated with the gas rush. But, he says, that’s just one side of the story. The fracking boom has also been an economic lifesaver, he says.

“Folks without a college education have gotten new income,” Hanger says. “Farmers have been able to keep their farms. There is a lot of new money and wealth coming into communities who desperately need it. There have been jobs created.”

It’s an echo of Lusk, the coal miner, and a repetition of the old argument that jobs should trump environmental protection. Who cares if the jobs are dangerous? Many of the positions pay well, although in the Marcellus Shale skilled, out-of-state workers claim many of the top-dollar gigs. Still, the outsiders eat at local cafes and sleep in area motels and campgrounds.

Locals do nab truck driver jobs, of which there are many, and work as flaggers and security guards. One such worker (who declined to give his name) at a gas well site in West Virginia said he was making $11 an hour. He had a family to support and the job had helped turn his life around. Recently he had been asked, without any advance notice, to work a holiday weekend. He didn’t mind, he said. He was grateful for the work.

photo of heavy equipment and a mine, farmfields nearby; postcard-like script reads, Strip Mining in Pennsylvania

But some people whisper darkly about what will happen when the boom goes bust. “We sold everything we had, put everything into this place, so we can pass on the family farm to our grandkids,” says Teresa Jackson. She and her husband, Terry, live on a farm in West Virginia that’s been in Terry’s family since 1930. They now have a drilling rig sitting a few hundred yards from their home. “We’re scared because we don’t know what we’re passing on – contaminated soil and water?”

“They have the right to drill, I’m not even going to argue that,” she says. “But I can’t understand how we should give them the right to put toxic chemicals into our property.”

Diane Pitcock moved from Baltimore to Doddridge County, West Virginia in 2005 to get a little peace and quiet. She bought a property with about 100 acres of woods, a log cabin for a home, and a vegetable garden. The family grew much of their own food, raised ducks, spent time shooting target practice.

Then a neighbor leased his land to a gas company. Trees were felled on the ridgetop above their home. Road building, trucks, drilling noise, and lights followed. Now two drilling pads, with a total of six wells, have been constructed. Drilling permits for her area reveal plans for a total of nine well pads and 27 wells.

“We came here for these gravel roads, the rural area,” Pitcock says. “We bought into it. It’s not the same anymore. This is the industrialization of this county.… They took 20 acres for the well pads next to us. It’s not my property, but it is my quality of life.”

Pitcock’s sense of place has been shaken, as has her sense of safety. On July 7 two explosions rocked a well pad above her home at 4 a.m. In the dark and the fog, with fires burning, her family packed their pets in the car, debated including the ducks, and waited to hear if they should hit the road and leave their home behind.

They would learn that five workers were transported to a burn unit in Pittsburgh with serious injuries. Two men died a few weeks later.

On the other side of the country, Rick Roles is also intimately familiar with the risks posed by fracking. Roles lives in Garfield County, Colorado, on the Rockies’ Western Slope, above a shale gas formation called the Piceance Basin. Roles, a former oil roughneck, thought signing a gas lease would be a good way to bring in needed money. He didn’t know the price he would ultimately pay.

Rural America has become collateral damage in our energy quest.

Roles says his land, 180 acres, is pocked with 19 wells. There are 100 wells within a mile of his house, he says, and within two miles there are also multiple compressor stations as well as a fracking wastewater-treatment facility. This isn’t unusual for residents in his area. In 2004 there were 1,669 active oil and gas wells in Garfield County; by 2012, the number of wells had climbed to more than 10,000.

“We make a little money but the property is destroyed,” Roles says. The Rockies sweep up to the east of his modest home, perched above the Colorado River. It would be a cowboy’s paradise, except that Roles hasn’t been able to keep his animals healthy (or sometimes even alive) since the drilling began. It was bad enough when he lost horses and goats, chronicled others’ birth defects and abnormalities. Then he lost his own health. In 2004, he says, his body seized up, his hands swelled like softballs. He couldn’t pitch hay bales, let alone feed himself. He developed headaches, sinus problems, allergies. He was diagnosed, he says, with peripheral neuropathy – nerve damage that can result from exposure to toxins.

On a windy June morning he stands at a well pad 850 feet below his home. The pad includes production wells and a condensate tank, used to store the water that’s separated from the gas. When enough pressure builds up in the system, it releases gases into the air. Standing beside it makes me dizzy. There is nothing to see in the air, no plume of dirty smoke, but the smell makes my eyes burn, stomach drop, and head spin. It’s a sucker punch I can’t see coming. “This is nothing today,” Roles says drily. “Some days it’s much worse.”

Most people have, by now, heard about the Alberta tar sands. The massive deposits of bitumen in Canada’s boreal forests – and the plan to ship the stuff south via the Keystone XL pipeline – have ignited protests across North America. The Canadian tar sands have been called a “carbon time bomb” – dirtier to extract, transport, and burn than conventional crude.

Fewer folks are aware that there are tar sands here in the US, too, and that plans are underway to tap them. A Canadian company with the name US Oil Sands has leased 32,000 acres on Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau to launch the country’s first commercial-scale tar sands mine. Already a 200-acre test mine has been scratched into a hillside, with viscous black bitumen oozing from the ground in places. The company hopes to eventually produce 2,000 barrels a day – significantly smaller than Canadian operations that crank out more than 100,000 barrels a day, but still enough to turn a profit.

Locals aren’t pleased at the prospect. A group called “Utah Tar Sands Resistance” has staged campouts near the site, with carloads of protesters arriving from Salt Lake City and Moab. But US Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd says his company will be a positive force in the region, contributing an estimated 100 jobs during the 12- to 18-month window of construction, and another 100 positions during the life of the project, which may be anywhere from 15 to 30 years.

“Our impact is less on energy supply and more on environmental sustainability,” Todd says, noting that the company will use a citrus-based solvent that eliminates the need for wastewater tailing ponds and will recycle 95 percent of the water used in operations.

Right now the area looks rugged and wild. Still, there is evidence of the human footprint. Skinny yellow signs mark gas pipelines beside the road. Grazing cattle can be spied before the road climbs to around 8,000 feet at the lip of the plateau. From that height, the clouds are close overhead, and views are long – on a clear day one can see the outline of the red rocks of Arches National Park in Moab, to the south.

How long it remains wild is unknown. It’s not just US Oil Sands that wants a piece of the action. The federal government has approved tar sands development on 132,100 acres of land in Utah, including an area farther south dubbed the “Tar Sands Triangle.” And that’s nothing compared to the 687,000 acres available for oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. Oil shale is the industry’s term for crude oil or gas that’s locked in sedimentary rock; when heated to 200 °C, the fossil fuels inside can be extracted.

Neal Clark of Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says that tar sands and oil shale mining is a “dirty and resource-intensive way to develop oil and gas.”

“It doesn’t have any place in Utah,” he says.

No matter where I traveled to – Utah, Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia – the disputes about extreme energy always came back to that idea of place, people’s love of where they live. The issue is further complicated by the fact that, in many states, mineral rights have been severed from the surface land. Known as “split estate,” this means that people who own their homes sometimes do not own the minerals underneath them. These homeowners are powerless on their own property.

Many residents also feel powerless in their communities; corporate interests usually trump local concerns. As extreme energy has rippled beyond the coalfields of Appalachia, more places are feeling the burden of the “resource curse.” It has splintered communities – pitted neighbor against neighbor – and revealed a nation sharply divided about our energy future. Social unrest accompanies environmental upheaval.

Gubernatorial candidate Hanger sees it happening in the Marcellus Shale. “Some people say gas drilling has no impacts, or it’s the worst energy choice in the world – both are crazy,” he says. “There are tradeoffs here, that’s the point.”

Yes, some people trade their land for their livelihood – a decent job or a nice royalty check. As a nation we trade the benefits that come with an untouched landscape for the promise of energy independence. But often the dividing lines and tradeoffs are not so clear. Rick Roles, a one-time oil worker, traded his health. Terry and Teresa Jackson aren’t anti-industry – coal and gas companies employ their kids – but neither do they want to trade away their farm. Coal miner Jared Lusk doesn’t want to lose his job or the mountains he loves.

But for so many people that live in extraction areas, the decision is not theirs to make. The decisions about whether to drill or not drill, mine or not mine, belong to someone else. They have little agency in the matter. They simply live next door, downstream, downwind. Diane Pitcock believes West Virginia has been deemed “collateral damage” in our energy quest. Rural America has born the brunt, and the bruise is growing larger. “We know that one day it’s all going to fall in,” Lusk says.

Let’s not wait to see which comes first, economic or environmental disaster. There’s no doubt that as a country we have some tough decisions to make about our energy future. We can follow the thin lines drawn by political parties and take our sides accordingly. Or we can huddle up for some collective soul searching, talk over the fences to our neighbors, consider the science and the community interest, and behave like this may be the most important choice we’ll ever make. Because it is.

This article has been corrected since it was first posted. We originally reported that a group called Before It Starts organized opposition to tar sands mining in Utah; in fact, Utah Tar Sands Resistance has spearheaded the effort.

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