Art Exhibit Attempts to Chronicle 'New Gold Rush'

The images are stark -- mazes of new, dusty roads on the open range, growing pools of groundwater and the faces of folks affected, for better or worse, by the coal-bed methane boom in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

UCROSS, Wyo. — The images are stark -- mazes of new, dusty roads on the open range, growing pools of groundwater and the faces of folks affected, for better or worse, by the coal-bed methane boom in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.

The photographs and satellite images are part of an unusual art exhibit on view in this town to chronicle what organizers call "the new gold rush."

The intent of the show, sponsors and artists say, is to educate people about how the land has changed in the decade since drilling began taking off. It also is intended to encourage discussion of the future, and whether or how development should continue.

"A large majority of the general public is not aware of what's going on back there, in the draws, in the back parts of the country," said John Vanvig of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation group that has questioned the pace and style of development and is one of the exhibit sponsors.

"This brings it to the people -- let's them know what happens when coal-bed methane comes to your neighborhood."

But some industry leaders fear the exhibit paints a skewed picture. While the effects of development can make for dramatic pictures, with all the new roads and power lines, wells and water pits, they say drilling also has brought significant, if much more subtle, benefits to many landowners and communities.

"Building a road or highway isn't pretty," said John Kennedy, president and owner of Kennedy Oil. "But it's something our economy needs to have."

For several of the artists, the initial goal was not to make a political statement for or against methane development with their images but to simply document what they were seeing along the lonely stretches of northeastern Wyoming. Ted Wood began taking note several years ago as a photojournalist, John Amos and Pat Smith while working industry-related jobs.

The more they got into their work, though, the more they found it nearly impossible not to be moved by what they were seeing through their lenses.

Since coal-bed methane development took off in the Powder River Basin, more than 23,000 wells have been drilled, according to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Drinking ponds for cattle have sprung up in arid pastures, and fenced-off pits have been built to deal with the volumes of groundwater that must be pumped out to release the pressure holding the natural gas in coal seams.

Smith, who confesses an affinity with the basin, said his interest as a photographer lies in showing man's effect on the environment. He said he's not trying to bash industry with images that show pits or pipelines; he once did emissions testing for methane companies in the basin himself.

"I know there needs to be development. But I'd like to think it can be done responsibly," Smith said. "I don't mind if my photographs are perceived as leaning toward the environmental part of it. That's more or less the way I see it."

Wood pairs photos of landscapes untouched by development with those affected by it, linking the two by curves or lines that draw in the eye. His work, like that of Ann Fuller, the fourth and final artist in the show, also puts a human face on development. Among his contributions are photos, including some previously published, of people from industry, conservation and ranching.

"There's no right or wrong in this," Wood said in a recent interview at the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery, where the exhibit is being held. "The only right or wrong is (in) the way it's happening. If we can educate people, that's a way of maybe pulling back the accelerator a little bit."

Reclamation is expected to be a key issue at a symposium planned here March 18, two days before the exhibit closes, said Sharon Dynak, executive director of the Ucross Foundation. Dynak said the foundaiton was talking with other galleries and museums about possibly showing and sharing the exhibit.

Some in the industry have written off the show as an attack, even before seeing it. Karen Brown, coordinator at the Coalbed Natural Gas Alliance, questions whether the exhibit will prompt a free-flow of ideas. She said the industry is already highly regulated and responsible, something she hopes comes across.

Source: Associated Press

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