From a windshield, through a scream…
By James McMurtry
There are probably more gas wells and oil wells in the western part of Rio Blanco County, Colorado, than there are year round human residents. In a barren little valley just north of the town of Rangely, utility wires stretch in all directions, carrying electricity to run the oil pumping units and the “quads”, tan cubicle things about the size of small walk in coolers, that separate the natural gas from whatever else comes up with it. Multiple pipe lines and flow lines hang suspended above a creek just west of the highway. In the evening, the motel parking lots, empty during the day, fill completely up with welding rigs and white company pickups bearing the logos of various oil field service companies. Halliburton trucks are plentiful here, as are those of a company called Total Safety.
On a western tour, last summer, I chose to stop in Rangely just to be someplace else, having grown tired of the usual route from Salt Lake to Grand Junction, US 6 from Provo to Price to Green River, I-70 on in. We had a day off near the end of a month long tour of the Rocky Mountain States and I wanted to see some new road, a rare impulse, as I approached fifty. And, of course, the Rangely route takes one through Dinosaur Colorado. How often does one hit a town called Dinosaur? In Rangely we ate at a restaurant that had run out of calf’s liver, squelching my sudden inexplicable desire for liver and onions. I did find a decent bottle of Spanish red wine in a liquor store which balanced out the lack of calf’s liver quite nicely. My bandmates have yet to forgive me for stopping in a place so ugly. I didn’t notice that the place was ugly, I’m used to oil field towns, many of my relatives work in the oil field around Wichita Falls, Texas. I’ve known the sight, sound, and smell of pumping units and tank batteries for as long as I can remember. I did notice that there were an awful lot of pumping units around Rangely, and that those units were freshly painted and unusually well maintained, but other than that, the place looked normal to me, for an oil town anyway.
Wind farms look decidedly abnormal to me, especially at night. Sometime between the last two deer seasons, a wind farm went in south of my family’s old north Texas ranch house that I use for a hunting camp. Last winter, in the middle of a night, I drove in for a hunt and was astounded to see red lights flashing in unison all along the southern horizon. I didn’t know what I was looking at until daylight, when I could see the turbines. I was angry at those red lights; they weren’t supposed to be there, messing with my memory, flashing through my night. The creak of the sucker rod on an early oil well might have upset my grandfather in a similar way, but probably not. That creak meant money, just as the all night red flashes mean money to the ranchers south of my camp who might get to leave their land to their children, thanks to the wind leases. I shouldn’t complain, but I sometimes do.
Wind is touted as green energy, and it may be, as long as one is not a prairie chicken. I recently met a college student who attends South Plains College in Levelland Texas. He chose the school because he wanted to hunt lesser prairie chickens which still exist in somewhat huntable numbers near Levelland (Not an unheard of criteria for choosing a college in the west. I attended the University of Arizona mostly because I wanted to hunt Gambel’s Quail.) The prairie chickens are having a hard time, hemmed in by agriculture for years, they are now under an even greater threat, because they refuse to nest under wind turbines. I suppose that if one is an animal that evolved in a place where nothing grows taller than sage brush, a shadow from a turbine blade flicking over one’s head might cause one considerable anxiety. Might be a buzzard, might be a hawk, why take a chance?
I remember hearing, on an earlier tour of the northeast, that the Kennedys were fighting the construction of an offshore wind farm near Hyannis Port Massachusetts and that the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were similarly upset about a proposed offshore wind farm that might obscure their view of the blue Atlantic. I can certainly sympathize, even though an offshore wind farm is, at least, no threat to the prairie chickens. A wind farm that wasn’t there in your youth will mess with your mind. But are affluent coastal New Englanders so special that they shouldn’t have to see the source of their energy as we who live further inland often must?
One doesn’t have to visit the west slope of the Rockies to get a sense of how much effort we put into energy production. One only has to look East, when crossing the Susquehanna at Harrisburg Pennsylvania, and see the stacks of Three Mile Island, or drive through southeastern Kentucky, where many of the mountain tops are blasted away, and every third bumper sticker reads, “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” We are finding lots of innovative ways of keeping the lights on. I don’t know that we need to keep the lights on twenty-four seven, but I don’t have much say in the matter. We have grown used to keeping the lights and computers on, and so we shall continue. But, for the moment, we must forget about the myth of green energy because it does not yet exist. At this time, every kilowatt still comes with a cost to the earth. Even solar power destroys habitat. Land has to be scraped off to make room for all those mirrors.
The coal industry’s touting of “Clean Coal” should be filed under “Yeah right.” It’s probably true that coal can now be burned much cleaner than it was in years past and I do applaud the achievements of the coal and power industries in this regard. But the Clean Coal ads don’t seem to address the fact that the coal still has to be dug out of the ground, and that can not be done cleanly. Yesterday, I drove past a strip mine outside of Gillette Wyoming, and that big black hole in the ground did not look clean to me. I know that once that coal seam is dug out, the mining company will fill in the hole, mostly because they have to have someplace to put the overburden. Then they’ll seed the depression with grass so it looks pretty, a process they call “reclamation”. I know they can get the grass to grow again, but whether or not they can actually restart the ecosystem they destroyed is a question for teams of biologists. I should say “the ecosystem we destroyed”, because the computer I’m writing on may be drawing power from the burning of coal from the same strip mine I passed yesterday.
Today, I drove down Wyoming Highway fifty-nine from Gillette to Douglas, a stretch of a hundred and ten miles or so, during which I was never out of sight of strip mines and gas wells. The mines tended to be off on the horizon, away from the road, but the conveyors were visible. The gas wells were close, but not terribly noticeable, just loops of pipe protruding from the ground. It’s interesting how exploitative industries tend to try to keep their activities out of sight. A logger in Michigan’s upper peninsula once told me that pretty much all the hills around Ishpeming were clear cut on the sides facing away from the road. He said that if you looked close, you could see daylight through the trees at the tops of the ridges. It occurs to me that I’ve seen very few strip mines from well traveled interstate highways. Near Douglas, I saw the most modern, state of the art, rail system I’ve ever seen in the United States. There were two main lines flanked by two sidings and a good signal system spanning all four sets of tracks at short, regular intervals. Trains were moving north and south for the whole stretch, north bound trains pulling empty coal cars, south bound trains loaded heavy with coal. Other trains sat on the sidings. I was never out of sight of trains for a good thirty miles. None of the trains carried passengers. AmTrak trains can be scary to ride, due to the uneven road beds under the rails. I’ll bet that coal rides nice and smooth. A ranch foreman in Texas, who used to manage a ranch in Montana, told me that he once moved a couple thousand head of cattle across a rail line without first calling Burlington Northern to let them know. A coal train came up as the cowboys were crossing the last few cows and the engineer reported them. The foreman later received a phone call informing him that, had the train derailed, the ranch would have been liable for the loss of a half billion dollar payload.
I’m not writing this blog simply to blast the coal industry or the wind industry. I’m writing to report what I see through the windshield. My job lets me drive around and see things that most of us don’t get to see. Most of us don’t have the time or money to care where our energy comes from. Some of us do, though. The Kennedy clan does. Many residents of places like Martha’s Vineyard probably do. Perhaps, rather than fighting individual wind farms in their own front yards, they could use their money, power, and influence to lobby for a national energy policy based on efficiency and conservation, so that we wouldn’t need so many wind farms and strip mines. More likely I should file that notion under “yeah right”. Probably, the super rich are pragmatic enough to know what a herculean effort it would be to try to get us all interested in conserving energy, better to pick fights they can win. But if they’re not willing to conserve, they shouldn’t bitch about wind farms. My only suggestion, if you have a few bucks and a day off, take a drive. Stop here and there and scan the horizon. Make note of what you see. If you don’t know what it is you’re seeing, ask a local, then decide whether or not you think it’s worth it.
This blog entry originally appeared on this website in 2012; due to technical problems it was subsequently corrupted and we decided it was too good to lose. Singer-songwriter and BLURT blogger James McMurtry lives in Austin, Texas. When he’s not touring, you can see him at the Continental Club every Wednesday, ‘round about midnight. Full details at his official website.