When Cowboys Cry

LAST NOVEMBER, at the annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings, Montana, I watched a cowboy cry.

As someone born east of the Mississippi, I’m aware that I may have my vocabulary words mixed up here. The crying man called himself a rancher, not a cowboy. But he had the hat. The legs in the blue jeans were bowed. And he said things like, Sometimes you have to ride with the brand, and sometimes you have to speak yer mind.

Which sounded like cowboy talk to me.

What had him choked up was the ongoing ruination of the West caused by fossil fuel extraction. Coal mining. Coal-bed methane. Oil wells. Oil sands pipelines from Canada. And the newest atrocity: high volume, slickwater, horizontal hydrofracturing, which blows up deep layers of shale to get at natural gas bubbles. Science magazine describes fracking this way: under extreme pressure, large volumes of chemical-laced water are used to “create a football-shaped cloud of fractured shale 300 meters long.”

The prospect of turning fresh water into a club to smash bedrock into footballish clouds had — along with coal mining — sunk a whole roomful of men into sorrow. They spoke about artesian springs that had stopped flowing. The difficult business of irrigating alfalfa. And something called subsidence — downward motion of the earth caused by collapsing tunnels or changes in pressure from gas extraction. Subsidence can roll boulders through people’s front doors.

There was a panel called “Reflecting on the Importance of the Good Neighbor Agreement.” There was a presentation about how to convince the state of Montana to study the environment before moving forward with destroying it (by permitting a coal mine at Otter Creek) and an update on the attempt to persuade TransCanada to withdraw its application for a waiver to use thinner-than-standard pipe for ferrying tar sands across the prairie.

The task force was pleased to report its success in this last effort.

Many conference participants looked like they had walked right out of central casting. And that created for me moments of cognitive dissonance. Their mild-mannered activities did not square, in my mind, with what cowboys do. I kept flashing on movie scenes. Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon dispatching a gang of murderers. Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland in The Cowboy Way lassoing a thug to the end of a speeding train. Good riddance to you, bud.

From what I could see in Montana, the torch of Wild West lawlessness is now being carried by Wall Street–backed energy corporations, while the real-life cowboys are trying to find things in the law that will slow down the rate of plundering, raise the cost of plundering, or make the plundering marginally less accident-prone. And given that fossil fuel extraction in general — and fracking in particular — is exempt from many federal laws, the guys in the white hats are having a tough time of it. They’re not exactly running the plunderers out of town.

Meanwhile, an entire way of life is disappearing so fast that the son of one rancher was interviewing for a job with the energy company that had wrecked his father’s land. I mean, you can’t make a living on the range anymore.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings is the tallest brick building in the world. At the end of the day, my son and I rode the elevator up to the top — which is the kind of thing you do when traveling with a nine-year-old — and we found ourselves inside the Billings Petroleum Club. In no time at all, a security guard — or -somebody acting like one — steered us back to the elevator shaft. On the way down, we passed the field office for Stealth Energy. Its logo: a cartoon gusher.

But as soon as we were on the ground floor, I wanted to go back up in order to verify what I’d seen in the dimly lit chambers of the Petroleum Club while being hustled out of it: a March of Dimes poster. Of all the boldface names hanging on the walls up there, this one interested me most because, twenty-three stories below, I had just given a lecture about the evidence linking exposure to fossil fuel combustion products to shorter pregnancies. Preterm birth is the nation’s leading cause of disability. Says the March of Dimes. So what was it doing inside the Petroleum Club? I found my answer in its newsletter, Gusher: in two days hence, the club was hosting a March of Dimes fundraiser.

Memo to Stealth Energy and the editorial staff of the Petroleum Club: Even my nine-year-old knows that gushers are the result of failed blowout preventers. They kill people. Memo to the March of Dimes: Take my name off your mailing list.

The desperate rush to force the earth’s remaining fossil fuels out of their fossily graveyards — which requires ever more toxic methods of extraction — affects, of course, everyone everywhere, and crosses all cultural and party lines. Two weeks after the Montana meetings, I was standing in a forest next to a swarthy man carrying a gun. He, too, looked like a character actor — from a movie about the French Resistance. We were in the right place — the cave-riddled foothills of the Pyrenees that had served as a refuge for anti-Nazi partisans and, centuries before that, for the defiant Cathars facing the Pope’s murderous army. (The man with the gun was hunting wild boar.)

Like Montana, southern France is also targeted for hydrofracking, along with the vales of England and the forests of Poland. And, a few days later, in the lobby outside the European Parliament in Brussels, I saw someone cry about it. That was the week that stories about fracking broke in the international press, and European environmentalists were scrambling to figure out what laws in the European Union might apply to this new technology. Like the sons and daughters of Montana’s cowboys, the sons and daughters of the Allied Forces were having a hard time finding legal traction.

The British journal The Ecologist reached a similar conclusion in an investigative report about the European plans of Halliburton, Chevron, Exxon, and others. Although fracking in the United States is linked to toxic pollution and social conflict, notes The Ecologist, the technology is being rapidly exported. Fracking “exceeds the government regulatory process.” It is “set to continue.” It is, perhaps, “too powerful to oppose.”

Really? Drill, baby, drill is more powerful than the Wehrmacht? So, now I’m looking for Marshal Kane and Winston Churchill, too. Meanwhile, in February, the un-legendary city of Buffalo, New York, quietly voted to ban fracking inside its borders. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has done the same. And my town board in Ulysses, New York, is, at this writing, considering its own fracking ban, after more than a thousand residents (of the three thousand registered voters who live here) submitted a petition. All such communities who take this step are inviting a host of legal challenges. So we are told. Vive la résistance.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Thank you Sandra, for the far ranging comments about resource extraction, and hydro-fracking in particular… And tying it to culture and emotion… Native to NY, and living in Pittsburgh, I have been following the Marcellus Shale debate in NY, PA, & WV… Last evening I attended a public lecture billed as presented by Conrad Voltz, who recently resigned his position at the University of Pittsburgh to freely speak his mind with regard to the issues you raise. He was not there — the person who now holds his position at the University of Pittsburgh took his place… And I was disappointed with his presentation though delighted with the comments offered by Patty DeMarco of the Rachel Carson Homestead…
    With all the technical information presented – and the requirement that questions be written – I felt the discussion was muzzled in more ways than one. All the while I was reminded of Allan Comp of AMD & ART, featured in Orion, who suggests pollution issues are not about water quality as much as they are about a crisis of culture. Alfred North Whitehead said it best by suggesting that “civilization haunts the waterways”
    Thanks for foregrounding the perversity of our cultural history and its ongoing curiosities…

  2. The Irish Government has also issued licences for shale gas exploration in the beautiful unspoilt north west of our country. I am heartbroken.

  3. I attended a meeting of “Liberal”democrats in to hear Oklahoma’s own Erin Brikovitch talk of the MANY dangers of the Keystone XL Pipeline(carries dirt Tar sands Bitumen)seeing I was supportive of the speaker the Environmental Concerns person of the state dem party asked me what to say when our Corporation Commission says “fracking has been around man decades and no harm has been caused”.I said I thought the mean some form of fracking fluid has been used,but now the go deeper and laterally,with more toxic materials and the harm is now much worse.Was I wrong?

  4. My state, Michigan, literally floats on a layer of ancient waters that, in turn, run over and permeate layers of sedimentary rock that slant upwards from Lake Huron in the east to Lake Michigan. The dramatic dunes of our western coast (the longest system of freshwater dunes in the world) perch on this fossil-filled sedimentary layer. The Upper Peninsula is crisscrossed by waterways that all empty into the Great Lakes too. Many are likewise fed by deep ancient waters that arise in springs: from the rough waterfall-laced highlands in the west, some of the oldest exposed igneous rock formations on the planet, plundered for minerals and sulfide-mined even now in spite of the proven irrevocable damage such a process does to the waterways it uses, to the dramatic sandstone cliffs, marshlands and fens in the east,

    All through the state, along roadsides where people stop to collect the water in containers and deep in woods that were once cut over and where they haven’t been repeatedly plundered, an amazing number of clear, drinkable, fountains erupt from hillsides. Some with such force Moses might have been the one who tapped the earth to make it spring forth. Others in a chorus of a clear and constant babble from dozens of smaller openings in the sweet detritus of years of leaves, all around horseshoe-shaped ends of ravines in beech, maple and hemlock cathedrals. They join together to make drinkable creeks that in turn join together to make clear or tannin-colored rivers that all, every single one of them, end up in the Great Lakes… one quarter of all the fresh water on the planet.

    In the midst of this are hundreds of old farms rendered unfarmable by the demon we innocuously call “current market trends” but still owned, often, if not too close to a city’s sprawl and turned into suburbs named “Spring Woods Estates” or “Trillium Spring Acres” (because we always name these over-built atrocities after what is no longer there), by the original families or their descendants. Many of these families straddle poverty. Their only net worth lies in the land itself. These are the people who are targeted by the energy companies who wish to frack and need those five acre staging areas with which to accomplish it. The combination, to those energy executives and their politician cohorts from both sides of the aisle, must be delicious… for who among those dispossessed farmers, who have for the past two generations settled into a life of near poverty, could resist the peanuts offered by the energy companies?

    Make small farmers’ farms profitable from farming and you have solved half the problem. As difficult as that might be (and it would be very difficult), that might be the easy part, if you consider the perfect storm of information, some of it energy company PR produced and some real, about how much burnable fossil fuel actually remains available, combined with the human species unquenchable thirst to satisfy its penchant to believe in the uber-capitalists’ wet dream of an imaginary (and, in the end, evil) state of perpetual economic growth.

    In the meantime, the Lakes themselves are already shrinking. Climate change? Perhaps. Over-use of what appears to be, like the forests once were, a bottomless well? Probably. But most likely both are the culprits. And now we are setting the stage to sully that irreplaceable resource even more than it has been already.

    I was recently out to my favorite hillside torrent… still there… with frogs, and trillium and ladies slippers and jack-in-the-pulpit. The beech trees may be soon gone, along with their store of nuts that feeds nearly everything that lives in the forests; they have their own disease to fall to. But they are still there, for now.

    And I drank. But for how long?

  5. Fracking has hit my rural Ohio community. The township in which I live has more signed leases than any other in the state, yet our politicians tout this “opportunity” for landowners as if it’s money from the heavens. Lease signers are happy to believe the claim that “…fracking has been going on for decades with no harm done….” No one asks the important question; “How is the current method different?” Nothing matters to the signers but the quick cash. When confronted with the possible/probable effects they say, “We buy bottled water anyway….” I do not buy bottled water. I use my well water. A clear natural spring feeds my pond. All of this is now in peril and I am helpless because of neighbors who have signed leases. The operation is only just now getting underway. When my well and all those surrounding me are fouled none of us will have the “opportunity” to sell our homes and farms to move elsewhere (where is it safe to go?) because no one wants to live in a toxic dump regardless of how charming it looks. The sad conclusion is that because of the prevailing greed and ignorance in America today, we who respect and cherish a pristine environment and a sustainable way of life are just screwed.

  6. This post is specifically about the industry myth that this form of shalegas extraction is a decades old well- proven technology, in response to an earlier question in comments here.

    I recently attended a talk in Newfield, NY given by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University. He is an engineering professor who is speaking widely about the risks of high volume slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing. His presentation was formatted as exposing four myths the fossil energy companies are putting out about this technique of “unconventional” gas drilling. His presentation included the following information, pertaining to the myth that this technology has been around for 60 years and is well -proven.

    This method of gas extraction requires 4 technologies only recently combined to make gas production from shales technically and economically feasible.

    These technologies are: 1. directional drilling to access a thin layer of shale, 2. high frac fluid volumes to stimulate gas release from many existing fractures, 3. slickwater, needed to control the amount of power needed to pump large volumes of frac fluids at high pressures over long distances throught small diameter casing, and 4. multi-well pads needed to access as much of the gas inventory as possible.

    Fracking with foam started in the early 1900’s, according to Ingraffea. But the first horizontal or directional well was drilled in 1991 in Barnett shale. Slickwater fracturing fluids were first introduced in 1996. Multistage slickwater fracturing was first done in 2002, and the use of multi-well pads and cluster drilling started in 2007.
    So while hydraulic fracturing might have first been used many decades ago, this tiny kernel of truth has been fertilized into a huge growth of distortion.( I am working up a brochure that contains information about the other three myths as well, to be done soon. They are 2. Gas migration from faulty wells is a rare phenomenon, 3. the use of multi-well pads reduces surface impacts, and 4. natural gas is a clean fossil fuel. contact me if you would like a pdf of this). Laurie Roe

  7. This is in response to Bob Johnson’s comments about an event that I organized Monday night at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, in conjunction with the exhibition “Too Shallow for Diving: The 20th Century is Treading Water.” The speakers were Dr. Patty DeMarco, director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham College (not Rachel Carson Homestead, though she was formerly the director there) and Dr. Charles Christen, operations manager (not new director) for Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh. Bob makes some implications that are misleading, so I would like to set the record straight. First, Dr. Conrad Volz, who was scheduled to speak, cancelled his engagement with us after press went out due to serious health problems. He was ordered by his doctor to cancel everything to regain his health. Charles Christen graciously stepped in at the last minute and provided some very useful information about the research CHEC has been doing re. local water quality and contaminants that included Marcellus Shale fracking water. Both speakers provided a holistic understanding of the watershed, our direct impact on it through our consumer choices, as well as the history of industry’s impact on our water in the Pittsburgh region, then and now. Re. the use of index cards for questions, we instituted this because in the last discussion that was organized in conjunction with the exhibition, one woman so dominated the discussion that after 1.5 hrs., the speakers still had not finished their presentations. Muzzling is a matter of perspective. To my mind, allowing one speaker to dominate is also muzzling, and we felt that the best way to avoid this in discussing an emotionally charged subject was to have people write questions on index cards for the speakers. The speakers were able to finish their presentations on time, and most everyone got a hearing. The speakers generously stayed after to answer any further questions. Easy for people to criticize when they did not do all the leg work required to bring such an event to fruition. Also, it is not in good form nor helpful to our cause to criticize an event in public organized by a colleague with the intent of promoting public education and dialog.

  8. I want to make a correction to my earlier comment. Foam fracing didn’t start until the 1940’s, not the early 1900’s. The early 1900’s were the beginning of getting gas from shales, but actual fracing technology (with foam, an early technique) was not til the 40’s, according to Dr. Ingraffea! Sorry for my earlier misunderstanding! Laurie Roe

  9. Josh Fox’s film, “Gasland” also has a crying cowboy. This man’s cows have no clean water to drink, and the calves will be ready for market in two years after drinking fracking contaminated water.

    This is a horror. Kudos to Buffalo for banning fracking.

  10. >new technology
    Hydrofracturing has existed and be used extensively for 30 years.

    And the reason Pittsburg banned it was not for environmental reasons, but because the pump trucks are very load and it violated noise codes. It takes 4 hours to fracture 30 stages. So it takes to long and makes to much noise to meet current city ordinances.

    And fracing will not damage your potable ground water. The treated zones are hundreds if not thousands of feet below your aquifer. The fractures propagate along the cement-grain contacts within sand or limestone. And if the fracture propagated upward it would hit and follow the horizontal plane of weakness that is the contact with the bed above the treated interval.

    The only source of pollution would be the dumping of the frac water without treatment. Which has been illegal for for thirty years, you can’t dump frac or brine water in the USA.

    Is everyone here insane? Have any of you even read a peer reviewed geologic journal like the AAPG bulletin or a Petroleum engineering textbook?

    There are reasons to bitch about gas well sights. If they don’t put up sediment barriers the eroded soil from the site can runoff into streams and increase turbidity, which is not good for macroinvertebrates.

  11. Alongside my concerns about contamination of groundwater due to fracking is the insane method of “spent” drilling fluid disposal. In Texas, we have long used the Hainesworth strata for water disposal, but these new fluids are too toxic to “dump” here. The alternative, under the auspices of the TNTCC & the EPA, is called “land farming”. For a sizable monetary sum, a landowner allows the operators to scrape the top 3-5 feet off of his land, building an earthen dam around the perimeter. Then waste haulers dump the putrified mud onto the land in a somewhat controlled fashion. Then the operators spread out the dams containing the original topsoil over the toxic soup. The last step is to plant coastal Bermuda, to be baled as “hay” for livestock. So, the cows eat the hay and we drink the milk and eat the beef. It’s NOT “finger lickin’ good”, it’s the downward spiral of mankind, scarier than anything you can read in the book of Revelation. I’ve taken several pictures of this process in Johnson County Texas, which seems to be the epicenter of dumping for the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex & beyond.

  12. Oops, I meant TNRCC- Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission- which is a joke.

  13. T.Boone Pickens owns the he Geology dept at Oklahoma State Universit.Everthing on the Campus is named after him..So research is done to support corporate interests(Chesapeake,which is owned n Devon)

  14. How many gallons of fracked(contaminated)water are used in the US?How much will be used be the time they quit? I feel sorry for Puerto Rico being forced to put in a NG pipeline across a huge part of the island and rare ecosystems when they could easily develop solar/wave energy(see Democracy Now)

  15. Re: T Boone Pickens. His name is also on most of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center buildings. The university is over run with the ‘corporate’ mentality rather than a community of research and education. Oil owns Texas.

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