Humans of New York inspires series of oil and gas profiles


Western Organization of Resource Councils

Carol Nash, who farms and ranches near Bridger, is included in the Living with Oil and Gas series.

A Billings-based environmental group has taken to social media to spread stories of Westerners whose lives have been touched by oil and gas development.

Still in its early stages, the experiment appears to be a budding success. In just two months, the Living with Oil and Gas project has attracted more than 2,200 likes on Facebook and more than 400 followers each on Twitter and Instagram.

The series consists of photos of those affected accompanied by brief quotations. The Western Organization of Resource Councils, which is sponsoring the project, adds no commentary to the quotations, which range from the outraged to the plaintive.

For example, Carol Nash, who farms and ranches near Bridger, was part of an effort to block a gas well pad near her place.

She says, “Farmers and ranchers are pretty independent people. We are very protective of our property, and our property rights. So, what’s scariest for us is that you have no rights when the oil company comes in. You really have no rights. Montana is lagging behind other states in landowner protections. Oil companies can come in, and if they decide to put a well by your bedroom, you don’t have anything to say about it, because there are no setbacks here. If they want to make a road across your best pasture, you have nothing to say about it. That’s it. And if they are flaring, outside your bedroom, for days and days … nothing you can do about it. The noise? Nothing you can do about it. If there are bad fumes and you’re getting sick? Nothing you can do about it. And that’s the worst part; that you are pretty helpless. I mean, you are helpless.”

Bill and Marge West of Arvada, Wyo., put it much more simply in a brief dialogue:

Bill: “The oil and gas companies have a hundred years’ experience.”

Marge: “And we had none.”

Bill: “We were beginners.”

The project was based on the format of Humans of New York, a blog of photos and stories of New Yorkers that has some 8 million followers on social media. It also has been turned into a best-selling book by the photographer, Brandon Stanton.

While WORC’s website is a long way short of Stanton’s success, it does provide a cheaper and more effective means of getting WORC’s message out than flying farmers and ranchers to Washington, D.C., to testify before an increasingly impotent Congress.

Nash said that groups like WORC, the Northern Plains Resource Council and the Carbon County Resource Council help relieve the feeling of helplessness that people sometimes feel when working with oil companies.

“If we all work together, and educate more and more people to what’s going on, then you can effect some change,” she said.

The project also coincides with WORC’s efforts to help pass new regulations controlling waste and air pollution from oil and gas activity. Both the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are working on rules to tighten controls over oil and gas waste and emissions.

The EPA concluded its public comment period in December. In a fact sheet, the EPA said its rules are a component of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut methane emissions from oil and gas activity by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2025. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has at least a 25 percent greater effect on global warming than carbon dioxide.

Mike Wilson, who ranches near Bainville, said he has more than 20 oil and gas wells on his property.

Western Organization of Resource Councils

Mike Wilson, who ranches near Bainville, said he has more than 20 oil and gas wells on his property.

BLM is accepting comments through April 22 on its proposed rule, which updates for the first time in 30 years requirements to minimize waste of gas. According to the rule published in the Federal Register, oil and gas wells on federal land produce 11 percent of the nation’s natural gas and 5 percent of its oil. Enough natural gas was lost through leaks, flaring and venting from 2009 to 2014 on federal and Indian lands to supply 5.1 million households for a year, BLM found.

The rules are in addition to industry efforts to cut waste, including Natural Gas STAR, an EPA-industry partnership in which 26 companies are joining in efforts to reduce methane emissions. In addition, six oil and gas companies have formed the One Future Coalition, which aims to reduce methane losses to no more than 1 percent.

Industry sources have complained that the additional rules are unnecessary and duplicative, but WORC and the Western Environmental Law Center said in a report called “Falling Short” that state efforts to minimize waste are inadequate. The report gave Montana and other Western states failing grades for efforts to monitor leaks and maintenance, among other standards.

But many of those featured on the Living with Oil and Gas website had complaints about oil and gas production other than waste and pollution. Kristi Mogen of Douglas, Wyo., said, “My parents worked in the oilfield. My husband worked in the oilfield. We knew what oil drilling was like in the ’80s and ’90s. We just didn’t understand how different it would be when the rigs came in this time.”

Mike Wilson of Bainville said, “Does the landowner who doesn’t own his mineral rights get screwed? Yes. No question about it. The landowner who does own his mineral rights–well, he’s got a little more leeway. But you still kind of get screwed.”

In a telephone interview, Wilson said he was contacted by WORC about appearing on the web site. His ranch, located in northeast Montana near North Dakota, has more than 20 oil and gas wells and has been the site of fracking activity.

“I’ve seen every piece of oilfield equipment there is,” he said.

While he said he was concerned about leaks, waste and constant trucks going by, his most serious concern was the behavior of some oil company officials. He had no problem with oilfield workers, he said, but the companies often acted unethically without proper or accurate notice of its plans.

The companies also were heartless when oil prices fell and the Bakken boom began to bust, he said.

“It wasn’t the promised land,” he said. “It was pump and dump.”

Local people weren’t prepared to handle huge increases in prices, DUIs, drugs and crime, Wilson said. Eventually, locals were no longer willing to go into bars that had been meeting places and community centers.

He said his ranch got 20-day notice nine times that a well would be drilled on his land. He eventually quit responding to the notices and began instantly responding “no” to callers whose telephone numbers he recognized.

He said that some of those he dealt with simply were not honorable.

“Their moral compass was fucked,” he said.

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