Fighting Resource Extraction Companies Toe-to-Toe in Wyoming

Ideas and Issues
Big Horn Mountains

Manderson      Forty percent of the nation’s coal is produced in the huge Fort Union deposit under the Powder River basin in Wyoming.  Mines cover hundreds of square miles of ground.  Oil and gas operations also proliferate throughout the state.  It’s possible to drive more miles along many of Wyoming’s roads without seeing people than it is to not see a horsehead well pumping away or a storage tank somewhere on the horizon.  It’s not hard to imagine the deep pockets that these kinds of extraction companies have in a small population state with less than 600,000 people stretched over a vast land area in the 10th largest state in the country.  Agricultural and ranching operations work along side all of these operations, as do the families that make the state their home and workspace.  And, that’s where the rub comes in.

In Sheridan I popped into say hello at the headquarters of the Powder River Basin Resource Council which is at the front line of this fight in much of the eastern part of the state.  I had spent a couple of days doing training with the Powder River staff in the mid-70s when the organization was in its relative infancy though now it has forty-five years under its belt.  Part of the regional community organizing powerhouse of the Western Organization of Resource Councils founded by Pat Sweeney to coordinate many of these organizations and their fights, Powder River set down a wide footprint on environmental issues related to extraction industries and how they affect ranch and ag communities in Wyoming.

Currently a central campaign focuses on something called “self-bonding,” but we’re not talking about Wall Street here.  The law in Wyoming requires coal companies to guarantee that they will reclaim the land that they mine and given the climate and annual rainfall in much of the state, that’s a huge job.  Sounds good so far, but the state also lets the companies “self-bond” which means they can claim that they are putting up enough money in reserve to do that reclamation work.  The frequency of coal company bankruptcies in the current energy economy is regular, so a self-bond is just about worthless.  Importantly, Powder River has made this a signature campaign.

In Sheridan I also met with Rob Davidson the executive director of Council of the Big Horn Range, focusing on the Big Horn region of northwestern Wyoming especially the four huge counties that overlap with the US Forest Service Region.  The Council is only a couple of years old and hopes to build along the same lines as Powder River.  The Council can also claim some recent victories, including preventing the Forest Service, facing cutbacks from Washington, to consolidate its offices and close one on the west side of the Big Horn mountains.

Thankfully, grassroots organizations of committed members and organizers like these are standing in the way or Wyoming and the stewardship of our national lands, waters, and ranges would be even more imperiled.