By Terry Tempest Williams on Apr 26, 2011
America’s Natural Gas Alliance is up in arms over the Academy Award nomination that went to Gasland for best documentary. The trade group does not appreciate the critique of the industry by filmmaker Josh Fox, so it’s launched a campaign to discredit Gasland.
“Contrary to the film’s claims, natural gas development can and does exist in harmony with our environment,” says Tom Amontree, the executive vice president of the group. “And it can play a central role in improving our nation’s air quality and solving our energy challenges.”
Tell that to the residents of Pavillion, Wyoming.
Pavillion is a town of roughly 160 individuals in the center of the Wind River Indian Reservation, 150 miles east of Grand Teton National Park. Large gas and oil developments surround the town. Last summer, the EPA informed citizens of the small farming and ranching community that their drinking water was no longer safe to drink or cook with due to high levels of sodium, benzene, and methane gas, among other contaminants and petroleum compounds.
Oil compounds were found in 89 percent of all drinking wells that were tested in the area, the EPA stated. Methane was found in seven wells out of a total of twenty-three. At least three of these wells were found to contain 2-butoxyethanol, a chemical compound known as 2-BE, used in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial process for extracting natural gas from underground.
“There’s things here there shouldn’t be,” says John Fenton, a Pavillion resident.
Encana Oil & Gas USA, which owns approximately 250 gas wells in the area, has denied natural gas development is the cause, stating that many of these toxins “occur naturally,” yet the Canadian-based company has agreed to pay for bottled water for the community.
Fenton appreciates the gesture, since he no longer has to haul fresh water eighty miles to his home. But he’s not happy that Encana is now part of a new working group with the EPA, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Together, they are supposed to find the cause of the water contamination. It could be argued that it’s not in Encana’s best interest to find the truth.
The simple question “What’s in the water and how did it get there?” is becoming increasingly critical to public health in the state of Wyoming, especially since the oil and gas companies do not have to divulge to the public the names of the chemicals they are using in the fracking process. These names are protected by law—a law many in Congress are trying to change—but the petroleum lobbyists are powerfully motivated to maintain the status quo.
So when a film like Gasland comes into the public’s view, no wonder America’s Natural Gas Alliance gets defensive. The scene where a man lights his tap water on fire should give all of us pause. This is fact, not fiction, in hidden pockets of the American West, more common than we wish to believe. Bless Josh Fox for giving us the truth, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for recognizing it.
I am increasingly struck by the fact that “art” can do what “politics” cannot: Tell a story that moves us. Whether it is a film, a novel, a play, or a piece of music, art stirs the soul and carries us beyond the inertia of our daily lives. Facts do not change society; emotion does. And we have become increasingly numb to our predicament in this country because of the barrage of information.
If I were to tell you the fact that if Wyoming were a country, it would be the fourth-largest coal-producing nation in the world, that is one thing. But if I were to tell you—as a nurse told me in a town meeting in Gillette, Wyoming—that there is not enough chemotherapy to service all the people in Campbell County with cancer, that is quite another story. It is the equivalent of turning on the faucet and with one match lighting the water on fire.
Art can remind us how much we care, and how much we want to do right in the world. It offers us a symbolic language that we feel first and only understand later. As such, it allows us to recover our sensational relationship to life: of the senses, not abstract but real.
In the summer of 2008, I set out on a road trip with two artist friends, Felicia Resor and Ben Roth, to bear witness to the oil and gas development in the state of Wyoming. We had received a grant called “Invoking the Pause” from an anonymous donor, who asked that we reflect on some aspect of climate change and think about how art might enter into the public conversation. Felicia was born in Teton County, Wyoming, and raised on a ranch; she’s a recent graduate from Yale in the humanities. Ben, a native of Colorado, is a metal artist, now living in Jackson.
We were acutely aware of our own role in our nation’s thirst for oil as we drove from Jackson to Pinedale to the Powder River Basin. What we saw was an industry on overdrive with oil patches and rigs supported by a nervous system of roads. We talked to citizens in Sublette and Sweetwater Counties whose water wells were contaminated with benzene. We noticed that the clear, clean air at the base of the Wind River Mountains was now subject to ozone alerts. A night sky of stars once taken for granted is now dimmed by the lights of a twenty-four-hour work force of roughnecks and drilling. These lights fuel our economy, cover our education, pay for our lifestyle.
We traveled across Union Pass through a forest of lodgepole pines, once green, now red, dry, and dusty—a result of local warming creating a double lifespan for pine bark beetles.
We witnessed ghost forests of white bark pines, and we imagined hungry grizzlies searching for their autumn food source of pine nuts.
We witnessed the split estates of mineral rights, above ground and below, that have torn up the hearts of ranches in the Powder Horn Basin. There, coal-bed methane operations have ravaged the land that ranching families have used for generations. (Heartbreak in ranching communities is the rupture of stewardship.)
We witnessed the black scars of the open pit mines in Gillette, commonly known as Razor City, where coal leaves Wyoming on trains twenty-four hours a day, and we heard a resident say, “One day, I’m afraid l’ll wake up and Wyoming will be one giant hole.”
We witnessed how the health of Wyoming residents and the health of the land were at stake.
Throughout our wanderings, pronghorn antelope were present as witnesses, too.
We saw them watching, not running, as they sat on the edges of the Jonah Field, outside Pinedale, be tween the man camps, between the roads and the burning slag ponds.
We saw them standing between sage behind fences, frozen in fear. They haunted us. They are creatures of movement. They were stationary. And their eyes never left us as we wondered what they were seeing that we could not.
When we returned home after our road trip, what emerged from our “pause” were the pronghorn. We recognized their abiding presence. They embodied the continuity of their ancient migration through the Greater Yellowstone region, which has occurred over the past 6,000 years. From the plains of Pinedale, Wyoming, through the Gros Ventre Mountains, to the sage flats at the base of the Tetons, the path of the pronghorn is the longest land-mammal migration in the lower forty-eight states, a 100-mile seasonal journey, second only to that of the Arctic caribou in the Western Hemisphere.
In honor of the pronghorn as sentinels, now threatened by oil and gas development and increased population pressures thwarting their safe passage, we decided to create an installation: a circle of twenty-three pronghorn skulls floating above weathered fence posts that have withstood the winters of Wyoming. This was our interpretation of what “A Council of Pronghorn” might look like as they contemplate the world we are creating.
Each skull represents a county in the state, a voice heard, a story told, a perspective felt. The fence post made of lodgepole pine speaks to the obstacles the animals face—be it an oil rig, a road, or an open mine. The metal base made of discarded tractor disks addresses our industrial footprint.
The Council of Pronghorn now circles the outdoor courtyard of the Jackson Hole Community Center for the Arts.
The animals bear witness to a changing world and to climate change.
This is what we feel is necessary: a climate of change where we realize the fate of the pronghorn as our own.
The migration of the pronghorn in Wyoming is not just a physical migration, but a spiritual one, a migration of our imaginations. This is the sacred territory of art that makes life bearable in the midst of pain and loneliness. Beauty is not optional or peripheral, but a strategy for survival.
Richard Ford writes in his short story “The Communist”: “A light can go out in the heart.”
Art has the capacity to reignite our hearts. In a world where powerful industries such as Big Oil would choose to seduce us into comfort and complacency while risking the health and well-being of our communities at every turn, there is nothing more threatening.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.