The movie "Three Kings" (1999), which follows a trio of American soldiers involved in the first Gulf War, contains an apt, if heavy-handed, metaphor about America’s dependence on oil: an Iraqi torturer forces the black goo down an American prisoner’s throat, making him gag.
In Sublette County, Wyoming, life is now imitating art. Picturesque Pinedale, know to climbers, hunters, and backpackers as a gateway to the Wind River Range, has an ozone—AKA smog—problem this winter. And the problem generating the smog is not the heavy rush-hour traffic in this town of 1,500. It’s natural gas drilling. The giant drill rigs and their huge engines produce smog-forming chemicals. So does the truck traffic. So do compressor engines. Winter inversions and snow cover help create the ripe conditions for ozone formation, but without the source of nitrogen oxides and other smog precursors from the natural gas industry, people would be breathing easy in Pinedale.
The Bureau of Land Management, which has approved many of the 5,000 active oil and gas wells in the area, has not exactly stepped up to address the problem. And the agency is close to OKing 4,400 more wells in the area. BLM’s air quality analysis of that proposal was so bad it prompted a rare scolding from the EPA two weeks before the smog violations came to light.
This problem is not limited to rural Wyoming. The EPA noted several years ago that the ozone pollution in the largely rural San Juan County was worse than in Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. The thousands of new wells being drilled in northwest New Mexico (as well as coal fired power plants) are almost certainly a major culprit in smog formation there as well. Still, the Feds in charge of approving even more wells in neighboring Colorado showed a particularly blasé attitude when they refused to even analyze the impacts of hundreds of new wells at the HD Mountains, which has prompted an Earthjustice lawsuit.
With the health of children, the elderly, and virtually everyone else who breathes on the line, it’s time for public land managers to start protecting public health.