For a long time biking west, we have seen full coal trains traveling east and empty coal trains returning. Following I-90 (biking on the freeway for one of the first times this trip), we entered Wyoming and the Powder River Basin. We had heard that this is where the coal has been coming from, but the scale of the mining became more amazing as we biked into Gillette. Every few hours we saw a 100+ car coal train, and we learned that around 85 coal trains – each carrying 16,000 tons of coal – leave this region every day. We also saw an open pit mine right next to the freeway, and another just outside of Gillette. Burning coal provides 52% of America’s energy and it’s also the biggest worldwide contributor to global warming pollution.
Gillette is the largest city in this basin – the self proclaimed energy capital of the world – and there we stayed with Jenny, a wildlife biologist who told us more about the town. Gillette, like many in the west that rely on natural resources, has undergone several booms and busts. Currently, the town has jobs galore, an incredibly tight housing market and a meth-amphetamine problem. We didn’t know about the recent boom in coal bed methane. This boom has been going on for about 7 years and a map of the region shows thousands of wells dotting the landscape (Jenny pointing out wells on the right). The wells are small boxes located all over the range lands. Pipelines hidden below ground allow all of the gas to be piped to garage-size compression facilities where powerful 12 cylinder engines compress the gas to be piped along to market. Water is also pumped out of the coal beds along with the methane so the landscape is now dotted with ponds where the water is siphoned off and left to evaporate or (hopefully) seep back into the aquifer. Several people we spoke with were concerned about the water that was being lost in an already desert-like landscape and the impacts this water is having on private lands.
Traveling on, we stayed on the Sorenson ranch (Powder River Angus) and were given a tour of the ranch and surrounding lands. After living on the coasts, David and I found this an amazing and largely foreign way of life. One thing that became clear to us is how much more dependent a farmer or rancher is on fossil fuels. The marginal land here requires farms of 5,000 acres or more and taking care of this land requires a lot of driving of trucks and tractors. The Sorensons chose a 300 horsepower 4-wheel drive Dodge diesel pick-up that gets over 15 mpg. Compare that with a Ford F-350 that gets about 8 mpg and you can see that they will burn half as much fuel in a year and that means half as much global warming pollution. In fact, at 15 mpg, their pick-up truck that is used to cover the toughest terrain and serious winter storms gets about as good mileage as the SUV many people use to pick up groceries. Being here made us wonder how we can devise an equitable way to reduce our use of fossil fuels when some people rely on them so much more than others.
After providing a hearty breakfast and a lunch to go, the Sorenson’s saw us off. We biked a couple miles along the dirt road (scoria really) that the coal bed methane industry is now putting in and maintaining all over the region. We reached the highway before 8am and it was already 75 degrees. Along the 80 mile journey to Sheridan my bike computer read 119 in the direct sunlight. Luckily the looming Big Horn Mountains will bring not only steep climbs, but also cooler temperatures. It’s scorching hot in the west right now. Is this our global warming future?