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'Horse whisperer' speaks up against gas drilling

river basin
A natural gas boom is gathering steam in Wyoming's Powder River basin  

By Natalie Pawelski
CNN Environmental Correspondent

CAMPBELL COUNTY, Wyoming (CNN) -- With hundreds of new gas-fired electric power plants on the drawing board and natural gas prices soaring, it's a modern-day gold rush for places where natural gas can be drilled. But the boon has costs as well as benefits, as illustrated in one resource hot spot, the home state of Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Cattle roam, antelope play and a natural gas boom is gathering steam in Wyoming's Powder River basin. A decade ago there were only about 50 methane gas wells here. Now there are 10,000, with another 40,000 planned. For some residents, that means big money.

"It's a way of making a living and it looks pretty good," landowner John Daly said.


Daly's property is dotted with 1,200 wells.

"It's nothing more than a water well that is producing energy. When it stops producing energy, we can cover it up, seal it up, plug it up, restore the Earth and things will be fine," he said.

But other ranchers say they're paying the price without reaping the profits. One side effect of methane drilling in the basin is floods of salty groundwater, which rancher Ed Swartz said has ruined the creek that he relies on for irrigation.

"Look at that. That's just the deadest thing you've ever seen," he said.

No irrigation means no hay for winter feed, and maybe no way to keep the ranch going.

"This is my home. It was my dad's home, my grandpa's home. It's my son's home, my grandchildren's home. And we can be put out of business so that the methane producers can make a lot of money."

Standoff continues

The state's Department of Environmental Quality agrees there's a problem with Swartz's stream. But the drilling company upstream from Swartz's ranch says it's not violating any water quality regulations, so the standoff continues.

Many of the ranches here have been in the same family for a century or more. But because of the homesteading laws of the 1800s and 1900s, many landowners don't own the mineral rights to their own property.

Methane drilling can cause flooding of salty groundwater, which hinders the irrigation process for Wyoming ranchers  

That means some outsiders get to decide if there will be drilling.

"If you don't control your mineral rights and you're the surface owner, sorry, the mineral estate clearly, solidly takes precedence over the surface estate in all cases," said Mickey Steward of the Coalbed Methane Coordination Coalition.

Landowners can negotiate damage payments of a few hundred dollars per well, but in the end they have no choice -- they have to let the gas companies drill.

"Now there's miles of roads and there's hillsides that are just carved out with bulldozers. And I don't even like to see my own place now," said Buck Brannaman a horse trainer and rancher.

'Horse whisperer' shouts back

Brannaman, the inspiration for the book and movie "The Horse Whisperer," said gas company trenches and ditches have made much of his land too dangerous for livestock. And he's had to cut back his cattle operation by two-thirds.

"It's a lifestyle that's real important to us and we don't try to impose our life on anybody else. But we wouldn't want anyone to blame us for fighting to preserve our own lifestyle.

The gas industry says it's learning as it goes.

"It's so important to the nation to develop natural gas resources and do it in an environmentally responsible manner. That is what the industry is working hard to do up here," said Steward.

The Powder River basin has seen boom times before, with coal and uranium. Each time, the landscape has changed, but ranch life has endured. Now there is another boom, perhaps the biggest yet, which will again test its rural heritage.

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