In the Wyoming of Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Proulx, the landscape is inseparable from the people whose lives these writers so vividly describe. It defines their days and their characters; it instills a kind of pride in them, that they withstand its rigors day after day and still get on with their lives. Continuing to see the staggering beauty of this terrain and its weather is no small feat for someone who is daily subject to its brutality.

In the last several years, seeing its beauty has often been a considerable challenge of its own. In Pinedale, a town in the sparsely populated Upper Green River Basin about sixty miles southeast of Jackson Hole, the smog has surpassed at times the worst that Los Angeles suffers. It obscures the hundred-mile vistas, causes runny eyes and nosebleeds and shortness of breath, and forces people who place a high value on enjoying their rugged land to stay indoors.

Smog is a product of excessive ozone pollution, and in Pinedale the ozone is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a natural gas well-drilling procedure that has transformed this area from a pristine near-wilderness to a major industrial installation. The extreme smog forms in winter, when temperature inversions cause the cold air at ground level, together with its load of pollutants, to be trapped by a warmer layer above it. The pollutants in this case are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which create ozone in the presence of sunlight.

The George W. Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a standard for ozone pollution that allowed a maximum of 75 parts per billion. More recently the Obama administration’s EPA lowered that to 65 to 70 ppb. Even that level is considered by many scientists and public health officials to be inadequate to protect public health. But winter ozone levels in Pinedale have often measured nearly twice that, triggering ozone alerts and endangering the health of children, the elderly, and those with respiratory conditions. And ruining the famous views.

Such ozone levels are virtually unheard of in rural areas, let alone the Upper Green, which prior to gasfield development could claim some of the purest documented air in the world. Its latest claim to fame is quite different: it’s now one of the top gas-producing areas in the U.S. Its first two big gas fields, the Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field, which extend some 30 miles south of Pinedale, contained trillions of cubic feet of natural gas between two and three miles underground. Several thousand wells have been drilled in these two fields alone, with thousands more planned.

The drilling rigs, the associated truck traffic, maintenance, and flaring – the burning of impurities that remain in the well after drilling – all contribute to the stew. Following alarmingly high ozone levels in 2005, 2006, and 2008, the state required emissions to be reduced before new drilling permits would be issued.1 Gas companies responded by reducing truck traffic and changing over to drilling rigs that run on natural gas instead of diesel, or that have pollution control equipment. By their own reckoning, emissions fell by as much as 25%. Yet ozone levels continued to spike to alarming heights, and ozone alerts were issued several times in 2009 and 2011. Health professionals declared residents to be at risk of premature death from respiratory causes,2 and the American Lung Association gave Sublette County an ozone grade of F for several years running.3

It wasn’t until after gas production peaked in 2009 and maintained a steady decline over subsequent years that the ozone alerts stopped. Yet the respite may be short-lived, as a new field, the Normally Pressured Lance (known locally, and more colorfully, as “Son of Jonah”) prepares to go into production. The Normally Pressured Lance will be more than four times the size of the original Jonah Field, with more than twice the number of wells.4

Air quality is not the only casualty of fracking. Groundwater has been severely impacted too. Wells have been contaminated with hydrocarbons and fracking fluids, making the water unfit and dangerous for either humans or livestock. In a prominent case in the nearby town of Pavillion, Wyoming, the groundwater used by the residents was found by the EPA to contain high levels of carcinogens associated with fracking. It was found that the operators were dumping waste into unlined pits, and failing to block leakage between the groundwater and gas deposits, which were in unusual proximity to each other.5 Yet instead of pursuing the case, the EPA turned it over to the state of Wyoming, whose interests regarding the oil and gas industry, and commitment to resolving the issue, were quite different from the EPA’s.

The industry also enjoys exemption from compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to a loophole created by the Bush administration in 2005, an exemption upheld by the District Court of Wyoming in 2016. This decision prohibits the EPA from regulating the impacts of fracking on groundwater at all, although the case may be appealed.

It isn’t only the human residents of the region who suffer. The Upper Green is the southernmost portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and hosts the migration of various species of big game, raptors, and innumerable songbirds. It is prime habitat for the sage grouse, the game bird with the spectacular mating display, which is being considered for endangered species status. It contains the winter range for some of the world’s largest herds of mule deer and pronghorn, including the entire Teton pronghorn herd, which cannot survive without it.

The 170-mile pronghorn migration in Wyoming, an annual event for over 6000 years, is one of the longest remaining migrations of land animals in the U.S. Although there were once eight such corridors in the Yellowstone ecosystem, six have been disrupted and blocked by human development, a fate that has befallen migratory corridors around the world. In the Upper Green, the herd is beset with not only the threat of development along the corridor, but expanded drilling in their winter range. The winter range is supposed to be off limits to drilling while the herds are present, but requests for exceptions are routinely granted.6

In fact drilling in the Upper Green will be greatly expanded in the next several years. The Normally Pressurized Lance alone will bring up to 3500 additional wells. This project will impact an immense expanse of wildlife habitat, where not only the deer and the antelope play, but bears, elk, wolves, and mountain lions use the land as well. It will also contribute enormously to the ozone problem.

But perhaps the greatest havoc being wrought by the fracking boom, in Wyoming and elsewhere, is to the climate. Fracking contributes vast amounts of methane to the atmosphere, 40 to 60% more than conventional natural gas wells.7 Methane is far more potent a greenhouse gas in the near term, trapping at least twenty times more heat than carbon dioxide.8 The effect, say many scientists, is even worse than that of coal, which natural gas is intended to replace due to coal’s significant contribution to climate change. Many scientists feel that continuing the large-scale development of fracking will undo the benefit of all the efforts by the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, and will speed the planet toward irreversible climate upheaval.

Due in part to the economic benefits of gas development – Wyoming’s unemployment rate has been enviably low during periods of high natural gas production, and the state budget has benefitted a good deal as well – oversight by the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency responsible for leasing the land, has been lax. Numbers of overwintering deer and pronghorn have plummeted, alpine lakes nearby have seen increased acidification (see the Scene Changes Thoreau page for more on acid rain), and air quality and views as far away as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks continue to deteriorate - as does the likelihood of climate rescue.

So far it appears that only the decline of fracking itself can mitigate the multiple ill effects of this technology. As the low price of gas makes fracking less and less profitable, and many gasfields are ceasing production, some areas will indeed see improvements to their air and water. But it comes at a steep cost to workers. It may well be that only by both transitioning to clean energy sources and bringing laid off workers along by retraining them to work in the clean energy industry can we hope to see Wyoming’s air and water restored to health, its wildlife protected, and its human inhabitants once again reveling in their challenging but magnificent backyard.

1 Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “Interim Policy on Demonstration of Compliance with WAQSR Chapter 6, Section 2©(ii) for Sources in Sublette County.” 21 July 2008.

2 Jerrett, Michael; Burnett, Richard T.; Pope, C. Arden III; et al. “Long-Term Ozone Exposure and Mortality.” New England Journal of Medicine, 2009: 360, pp. 1085-95.

3 American Lung Association. Accessed 13 July 2016.

4 Pendery, Bruce. “Proposal would more than quadruple the size of the Jonah Field.” Wyoming Outdoor Council, 5 May 2011. Accessed 13 July 2016.

5 “Wyoming and Fracking.” Sourcewatch. Accessed 13 July 2016.

6 Barringer, Felicity. “Bush's Energy Policy Lives Where the Deer and the Antelope Play.” New York Times, 14 Dec 2003. Accessed 13 July 2016.

7 Fischetti, Mark. “Fracking Would Emit Large Quantities of Greenhouse Gases.” Scientific American, 20 Jan 2012.

8 Ibid.