Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Day 53: Buffalo, South Dakota

In Fallon, Montana, I was given a can of soup, a homegrown tomato, and an orange vest typically worn by hunters. ("I'd hate to see you get shot," said the local who kindly, and sheepishly, handed it to me as I cooked my dinner under the town's pavilion.)

Earlier, on my walk through the prairie, I had a coffee and three oatmeal cookies with Patty and Lewis, farmers who had land about ten miles north of town. I knew I was off the pipeline path, so I wasn't expecting to glean insights about the XL, but Patty and Lewis were leasing land seven miles to the west, where the pipeline was to be laid.

Land agents, representing TransCanada, the company that will build the pipeline, had been approaching homes in the area for years.

"Shysters," Lewis said. "They're damn secretive."

Apparently the land agents do as much as they can to deal with landowners individually. Lewis said that they'd coerced some older people to sign compensation contracts, but other landowners--worried about the quality of the pipe, the compensation they'd get, and who would deal with clean-up if there was a break--joined forces and acted under the Great Plains Resource Council.

The landowners were especially irked because TransCanada desired to use a thinner pipe under their land because it was allegedly a "low consequence area." They were also offering 15 cents a foot to landowners, but the Council was insisting on $30. But it's difficult to negotiate a fair sum, Lewis says, because all landowners must sign disclosures and keep their agreements with the company confidential.

"Who is responsible if that thing blows up? No one could answer that," Lewis said. "Most of the people want to be treated fairly. This secretive bullshit sits in your craw. How do we know what they're getting up in Canada or down in Texas? Land agents won't tell you anything. They keep you isolated. It's all up to you to negotiate."

We talked for about an hour, Patty filled up my water bottles, and I walked south to Fallon, where I'd cross the Yellowstone River over the I-94 bridge next to Fallon.

At the town bar/restaurant, the only place in town where I could get Wi-Fi, a middle-aged lady came and sat down in front of me. I'd seen her ten miles north of Fallon in her white pick-up.

"So what are you doing this for?" she asked. I explained that I was in the mood for a long walk and that I wanted to see the path of the Keystone XL before it was developed.

"What, do you think ethanol is any better?!" she exclaimed. Her tone was bitter and accusatory, and she spoke to me as if I was a lobbyist for the ethanol industry. But at this nascent stage of our conversation, I'd yet to give her any indication that I had any prejudices against the XL. I do of course have prejudices, but for all she knew, I could be on this trip to bless the sacred grounds into which the glorious pipeline shall be laid.

I didn't know much about ethanol, but I gathered that it wasn't a realistic solution to our oil dependency problems. "I'm not smart enough to know the solution," I said. "But I think we can reduce our oil consumption. We use twice as much energy as Europe."

"Yeah, but it's a lot denser over there," she said. "Look, you're using energy to power that computer," she said, pointing to the socket that my iPad was plugged into. "You don't think we need oil?"

(As for her "denser" point, author and scientist Jim Hansen has this to say: "Only a small part of the difference in energy use [between the energy efficient Europe and Japan vs. energy gluttons, Canada, U.S, and Australia] is accounted for by greater travel distances... The primary difference is that Europe and Japan have taken steps to minimize fuel needs." He adds, "California achieves energy efficiency close to that of Europe and Japan" because of an "astounding variety of energy efficiency standards and incentives.")

Agitated with her accusatory tone--that was only, I'd soon gather, a roughness of speech common in these parts--I said, "Well, the planet's warming. We gotta do something."

In my tent that night I was appreciative of her jarring questions because it forced me to think about the situation, but also troubled because I didn't have the faintest clue what the solution was. I opened up my Kindle application and went through the various energy policy books I've read over the course of this trip.

David Owen, author of The Conundrum, says that we must focus less on making things more efficient (because efficiency enables consumption), and more on reducing consumption, which is the root of the problem. (America, he points out, accounts for one-fourth of the consumption of oil, coal, and gas, and individually we "consume resources five times the global rate.") He recommends that we 1) Drastically reduce our dependency on automobiles; 2) Enact a "fee and dividend" tax system (in which consumers are taxed for purchasing things that produce greenhouse gases, but the public receives those taxes back so they can invest in more sustainable lifestyles); 3) Invest in grand alternative energy projects (he describes a team of scientists who would like to test, on a large scale, their idea for sending planes 2,000 feet into the air, where they'll harness the heavy wind energy which will be sent down a cable that the plane is attached to); and 4) Live in "dense, efficient, intelligently organized cities," which "are the future of the human race."

NASA scientist and climatology expert Jim Hanson, in his book Storms of our Grandchildren, recommends that we put an end to coal-fired power plants, forego unconventional fossil fuels (i.e. Tar Sands, shale oil), and that we employ a fee and dividend tax system, as described above.

Bill McKibben, in his book Eearth, recommends that we scale back to small economies and small farms. "By some estimates," McKibben says, "as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops... It takes eleven times as much fossil fuel to raise a pound of animal protein, as a pound of plant protein."

Walking through these cow pastures and over these hay fields, I've often wondered if they will still be around in 100 years. Will we figure out a way to power the tractors and transport the cows and dispense the meat across the country--without unleashing the ghastly greenhouse gases? Or will the industry be immobilized by the scarcity of obtainable oil? Despite the bucolic character of the land, I recognized that this lifestyle--these hay fields and thousands and thousands of cows--cannot exist without large quantities of oil.

This woman drives long distances to and from her pasture every day. She probably runs a tractor over hundreds of acres of hay fields. Scaling down, small farms, higher taxes on gasoline. The sort of changes these experts recommend would be appalling, unthinkable--offensive even--to someone like her. It's no wonder why well-meaning scientists are so quickly dismissed, and global warming, denied, by those whose lifestyles are so reliant on oil.

After Fallon, I continued on to Baker, Montana. I walked through miles and miles of uninterrupted canyon country. When I approached a steep precipice, I would worry that I wouldn't be able to find a way down. But at every canyon rim, I was quick to find a path blazed by cows leading down and up the steep walls.

The town of Baker sat underneath a dank, overcast sky. When I first caught site of the town, I was standing next to an abandoned windmill. which used to pump water from a spring to provide cows with water. Half its blades were missing, and all it could do now was creak, hauntingly, with each passing gust.

North of town were dozens of pump jacks, some white, bearing streaks of rust, others, pitch black. Some were slowly dunking their probosces into the ground, but most, it seemed, stood frozen, paralyzed, dead, no longer able to sustain itself on the pools of black nectar that have since dried.

In town, behind hillocks of scrap heap, I could see the top of a crane busy moving metal. The town had an air of decrepitude, but when I entered I was shocked with the bustle of activity. There were hundreds of newly bought pickups, parked in front of bars, clustered at motels, Hummers headed down Main Street. There were trailers everywhere, housing for all the temporary workers building two pipelines in the area.

Baker is booming, but none of the bustle gave me the impression of prosperity, sustainability, improvement. The pipeliners will leave, the motels will empty, the bars will cut back on servers, and things will resume as they had. The money that once came in in such abundance, will be completely squandered and forgotten.

What a dismal looking future, I thought. Graveyards of pump jacks. Dead ducks on tailing ponds. Well water bursting into flame. Droughts on the plains. Hurricanes in the north. Water on the poles. Yet as the world warms and oceans rise, the country clamors for an employer-in-chief to create jobs, jobs, jobs, growth, economy, progress...

I walked into the post office, where I would pick up several packages. Josh had sent me four days worth of food, a brand new four-season tent, and winter gear: a merino wool shirt, a pair of gaiters (for walking through snow), a new pair of gloves, a new hat, a pair of hiking boots, two pairs of wool socks, and two new pairs of underwear.

I was delighted to have the new gear--ecstatic even--consumer that I am.

Would this be a badger?
Artwork from Josh's nieces, Maggie and Eleanor, received in my latest package.
My La Sportivas headed to the trashbin. They served me well, but I hung onto them too long. I'm wearing my large--and heavy--hiking boots now.
This is what happens when you hike for 40 days in the same underwear.
These skin-like bandaids are expensive, but they've done an admirable job helping me deal with gashes and chafing on my heels.
My new 4-season tent. Nights are warm, but the condensation in the morning is undesirable.


Tom said...

God speed to you my friend. Stay safe...

Michael Harley said...

I really enjoy reading about your trip. Also, thanks for the book recommendations... I think I'll pick up a couple of them myself!

Good luck!

Trish said...

you make such fantastic points. I grew up on a small diverse farm - corn was grown to feed the livestock which was cattle, hogs and chickens, in reasonable numbers. Farmers in the late 70s and early 80s were encouraged to specialize. A small diverse farm provides a great way of life for human and animal alike.

Unknown said...

Yessir, that is a Badger. Admire from afar!

Anonymous said...

Things are looking up! Hope you can post more often now. :)

Jennifer said...

You are so right about the jobs. Here in Canada, of course, everyone in the west cannot wait to have the XL pipeline approved extolling the number of jobs that will be created - but no-one seems to want to tak about exactly how many jobs will still be around once the pipeline is finished.
We seem to be faced with jobs and the economy overwhelming safe stewardship of the planet as people cannot face a change in their lifestyle - what they see as a lower standard of living - meaning financial wealth not a healthy environment.
Given the US debt problems and high unemployment, I doubt this set of priorities will change much in the near future.

dissed said...

This is much better than being awakened by the Sheriff accompanied by frightened landowners. Your photos are marvelous. The commentary from those you meet is thought-provoking -- such rich diversity. It's easy to become complacent within our own little bits and pieces of this continent.

Ed said...

You're going on a pretty amazing trip! I'm really enjoying the story.

I've been working in the oil industry for a few years as a Petroleum Engineer. There were a couple of things I read that I can comment on that sound bad but really aren't. You didn't talk about them one way or another (really I just read the words), but I've got some experience with them so I thought I'd share.

One is about flaming well water. My first job in the industry was in a coalbed methane field. The house I lived in had wellwater and when I came home after a day or two away and opened up the tap there would be a blast of gas. One day I took a lighter out and the sink turned into a giant flame ball. I thought it was a myth before then. It was fun showing people my sink exploding after them driving hours into the peaceful countryside!. Most people think it has to do with nearby wells, but it doesn't. It's very common in oil and gas bearing areas to have coal seams close to surface that often have fresh or almost fresh water in them. People drill them for water and as the water is withdrawn over time, the pressure depletes and methane desorbs from the coal and comes out with the water. The methane can accumulate enough to light on fire. It would happen even if there were never any oil and gas activity.

Another thing read was about pipeline companies being secretive and sending third party landmen out to see residents instead of their own people. They don't do this to be secretive, they do it for the same reason oil companies don't own drilling rigs anymore. By using companies that focus just on land related services they can be more efficient both because they can use the land company only when needed instead of having to staff up when it gets busy and lay them off when it's not (apparently it's very difficult to lay people off). The third party land company would be able to send those landmen to work on another company's projects instead of laying them off. Good for employees (more stable job), better for the oil company (more efficient = more money), better for society (as long as you think cheaper resources are better. Personally I'm not so sure cheaper is ultimately better).

I hear a lot things used against the oil industry that aren't true (barring the whole class of things that is just opinion or value based). I just find it so strange that there is a complete void of experts chiming in to correct misconceptions. I just don't understand why. I only know small parts of the industry, but if you have any questions, just ask on your blog and if I happen to read it I'll respond.

This is probably the first blog I've ever responded to. I just appreciate that you're sharing and wanted to reciprocate.