Resource Exploitation Without Control: A Recipe for Disaster

Posted by By at 23 October, at 07 : 19 AM Print

I love traveling. I enjoy meeting people in a variety of places, with different manners of talking and thinking. Though sometimes there aren’t as many differences as one might think.

A friend turned 40 a few years ago, nearly at the top of Engineer Pass, just outside and way above Ouray, CO. I was driving the Jeep that day as we climbed as high as I dared into the San Juan Mountains, part of the Colorado Rockies. One particularly impressive part of the hours-long climb up narrow, rock-strewn switchbacks was looking up at what someone later told me was, as I recall, Steeple Spire. Or something of that ilk.

We first noticed the needle-like tip pointing heavenward a considerable distance above us. An hour or so driving later, it was about the same distance below us. A little farther was the ice-rutted path leading to Engineer Pass, at about 13,800 feet above sea level (though with the sea getting higher the current rate of about 6.7 inches every ten years, the pass won’t be so high in a few years).

There were mountains everywhere, from Denver, where we de-planed, and started climbing through Boulder, then dove down through the Glenwood Canyon on the other side of the range. In Durango, we picked up a narrow gauge rail trip to Silverton, above the Animas River, 400 feet below the bridge that crossed it. The Spanish, we were told, called it “Rio de las Animas Perdidas” – River of Lost Souls – for the explorers who died in the area.

They were all real places, left over from the gold and silver mines, and riches the effluent of which still pours down the streams.

Last week, I took another trip, a lot closer to sea level, to the west Texas town of Lubbock. Home of Texas Tech University and next in line for gas and oil drillers to mine for the raw materials to run our cars and computers. I shot a few pictures from 29,000 feet, of wells, framed by ponds of water left from drilling, giving the landscape the appearance of huge printed circuit board from iPods hundreds of miles wide and long, and thousands of feet deep.

On a bus trip to the drilling fields about 90 minutes south of Lubbock, we found more wells, spaced every 600 feet through suburban fields and yards. Residents own the land their homes rest on, sort of. The gas and oil companies own what’s below, the results of long-ago sale and leasing contracts written when would-be landowners thought they were buying places to settle down, raise kids, and live out their elder years.

But the law prohibits landowners blocking access to holders of deeds to the below-ground wealth, so now homeowners look out their kitchen and living room windows at the wells that are both the reason some of them would like to sell out and leave, and the reason they can’t.

A huge portion of the state was under drought this summer, but a driller explained fracking a well takes only a few million gallons, pumped from the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge, shallow underground reservoir stretching from South Dakota to Texas. The aquifer has irrigated farm fields and well drilling since the Dust Bowls of the early 1900s; the well owner we spoke with assured us it would last forever – or at least until the drillers had no further need of it.

It’s creation required a few million years; at the rate it’s being used, estimates have it running dry in as few as 25 years.

I was reminded of something told to Gifford Pinchot – conservationist, first head of the U.S. Forest Service and twice governor of Pennsylvania – whose family emigrated from France and made much of its money cutting down forests for home-building and other purposes. In the 1890s, Pinchot was advised against creating a profession – forestry – in which there would be little hope of earning a living. It would only work if the federal government forced it. There was too much forest, he was told, and it replenished itself too fast, so that government-mandated conservation was unnecessary.

Some things do not change much over the centuries.

Photo by GerryT

This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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