Monthly Archives: February 2014
The United States is experiencing an energy boom. Oil and gas production is steadily growing, mostly due to new technology in use in older oil fields that were once regarded as exhausted, and development of new areas like the Williston Basin in North Dakota and the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Here in Colorado, the boom-bust economy of the Western Slope experienced a major boom. In the Denver Basin, mostly in Weld county, drilling has increased dramatically.
Why this oil and gas boom when just a few years ago, oil and gas production had been declining for years. Fracking, where a well is driven down into petroleum-bearing strata once regarded as unproductive because the rock was not porous enough to allow the petroleum to flow into the well, can now become productive when the rock is hydraulic fractured by pumping water under tremendous pressure into the rock layers. The rock breaks, and the sand and chemicals hold the fractures open enough to allow the oil and gas to migrate into the drill hole.
Fracking is not new. I am from Western Colorado, and in the 1950’s the region experienced a double boom. The government needed uranium to build bombs, and oil and gas were in great demand. My paper route doubled with all the new people moving in for good-paying jobs. Fracking was in use then, but had limitations as the amount of rock broken around a vertical drill hole was limited. Today, however, that has changed because of horizontal drilling, where a well is drilled into the desired rock layer then the drill makes a 90-degree turn and drills horizontally, increasing the amount of rock in that layer that can be fractured.
The result of this technology is that the U.S. is moving toward energy independence. Our dependence on the Middle East for oil is almost gone. New jobs are being created, oil prices have stabilized, and a new energy era has dawned.
All good, right? No. There is always a cost. Fracking requires water. Millions of gallons of water are injected into the earth. Some comes back up, but it is dirty stuff that sometimes is cleaned up, sometimes not. Here in Colorado water is a scarce resource, and most of the water used in fracking is lost.
The oil rigs need roads and solid pads for the equipment. Well-developed oil fields are a maze of roads and pads that have no other use. I became aware of the damage flying over the overthrust belt in southern Wyoming. The land in that arid region will be scarred, and wildlife habitat reduced, for centuries.
The cost most people are concerned about is the pollution around the wells. Lighting the gas coming out of the water tap in the kitchen sink is the most publicized problem. Odors, toxic fluids coming out of the wells, air pollution, and an increase of respiratory illness near the wells are all of concern. The result is there is a great deal of opposition to fracking. In northern Colorado, several cities have banned fracking, with the oil and gas industry engaged in a major political battle.
All this opposition is the oil companies’ fault. There is a huge amount of money to be made from the oil and gas produced by fracking, and the drillers are working as fast as they can to make that money. In the process, they cheat. There are proven means to prevent any unwanted gasses and fluids from migrating to the surface around a well. Good well casing practices, assuring there is an impervious layer of rock above the fracture zone, and well-placed concrete between the well casing and the surrounding rock. All this casing and concrete is expensive, and in a mile-deep hole in the ground. So, cheat. Use rotten casing, less cement, and loose strata above the production layer; all lead to environmental damage at the surface when the well leaks. The damage does not have to happen.
Just as fracking technology is well-developed, the means of protecting the area around the wellhead are available. The key is requiring the drillers to use those means. It is not enough to pass laws saying don’t do it. It takes monitoring with enough inspectors on site to assure proper practices are followed. The monitoring can be funded by a tax on production. (The producers cheat at production figures as well). The result can be more jobs and safe oil and gas production.
Here in Colorado, with a Governor familiar with the oil and gas industry and a good political climate, solid regulation can happen. In Texas, however, the oil industry has controlled the state government for many years. Lots of folks stand to get sick there, and massive amounts of greenhouse gas are entering the atmosphere. With widespread public outcry about the environmental damage, the political climate may change enough to allow good governmental regulation.
The real solution to our global warming and climate change problem is to end the use of hydrocarbons we dig out of the earth. Coal, oil, and natural gas have to go. This is not going to happen soon. We can, however reduce the impact by moving from coal to natural gas as fuel in power plants. This has happened in Colorado, but huge amounts of coal still go to power plants in the south and east. More natural gas production can reduce coal consumption. The plants will still pollute, but at a lower amount. Fracking is the means. The next step is to accelerate our transition to renewal energy sources.
Fracking, if done properly with a good regulatory structure, can reduce our dependence on the Middle East for oil, and can reduce domestic coal use. There will be less environmental damage, and the economy will benefit. All we need is less hysteria and good regulation.
Here is a letter to the editor from The Denver Post 2-21-14 on fracking.
Carol and I watched Amazing Grace last night. It is one of the best movies I have seen in some time. It is about William Wilberforce, who campaigned against slavery in the English Parliament for many years in the late 18th century. A fine period piece, something the Brits do well.
I have trouble with a lot of Hollywood movies these days. They seem to aim at a mass audience with little respect for the intelligence of the viewer. The result can be a fun two hours, but I tend to forget them in about two days.
We do watch television, but not the usual fare with the exception of Downton Abbey, which is now popular here. We watch both Sherlock Holmes series; Sherlock, from the Brits, and Elementary, set in New York. Both are fun to watch, and have different takes on the original.
There are two mystery series we enjoy, also from the UK, and set in Oxford. Inspector Morse, set in the early 1990s, and Inspector Lewis, set in the present. Both are engaging, with fine views of medieval Oxford University. Both shows depict Oxford academia as somewhat medieval as well.
Morse is an intellectual policeman who did not quite graduate from Oxford, while Lewis is a working class Geordie from Newcastle. The contrast makes for good character development. In the older series, Lewis is Chief Inspector Morse’s sergeant in the Morse series. In the Lewis series, Lewis is the Inspector with intellectual Sergeant Hathaway (Cambridge) as his assistant.
What is so good about the two shows is the connection to Oxford cultural life, green England, rain, interesting characters, and good stories. A strange quirk is that with Morse, almost all the murderers are women. What is that about?
Some books to mention are the Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn. Bernie is the detective; Chet is the dog, who tells the stories from his perspective. Good mysteries and Chet is quite the dog. Chet is funny, and you will find yourself laughing out loud and often. The same jokes tend to run from one book to the others, and I laugh every time.
Another book I recommend is Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, a biography of Kit Carson. It is a well-done book about one of the most interesting Americans of the nineteenth century west. John Carson, a ranger at Bent’s Old Fort and Kit’s great-grandson, does not like the book, so it is probably pretty accurate. Kit did everything, went everywhere, and was something of a ruthless killer. Sides tells the bad of old Kit with the good.
We graduated high school and spent the summer hanging around Fruita before starting our new lives. Most nights we met at the pool hall and went to Grand Junction for a movie, drove around drinking beer, or shot pool.
We saw Joe park his old Power Wagon and walk in. He said, “I twisted off from my roughnecking job down at Moab and have to pick up my gear. Lee, I’ll buy the gas and beer if we can go in your Mercury. My Wagon isn’t too happy over 35.”
“Sure.” Lee said. “We can run down there and be back before midnight. Ought to be fun.”
Joe said, “Do you guys want to come along?” to Ed and me. We headed for Lee’s nice ‘56 Mercury and piled in. Joe bought a case of Coors bottles for the trip. We threw the empties at road signs.
It was 100 miles to Moab then fifteen miles of dirt road to the drill rig with Joe’s stuff. After an hour and a half and most of the beer we turned onto the narrow dirt road. It followed the Colorado River downstream in a canyon with sheer sandstone walls on one side and the river on the other.
We made it to the rig, Joe got his gear, and we headed back to Moab. About half way there, Joe yelled, “Stop! There’s a Ring-tailed Cat.”
The Ringtail, as it is now called, is a member of the raccoon family, lean and leggy for nocturnal hunting in its desert habitat. He was between the car and the cliff wall, with a little scrub to hide behind.
“I’m going to get that sucker.” Joe said as he took some heavy work gloves and jumped out of the car. The cat tried to go up the sandstone wall and Joe lunged for it. He tied into a fury of teeth and claws. The cat left and Joe bled.
Ed cleaned Joe’s bites and scratches with the last of his beer and we headed home. After lots of laughs and very little sympathy for Joe’s wounds, we all settled into the ride.
Lee was fairly drunk, but no more than the rest of us, so he drove all the way, nodding a bit. We were about three miles from town and Ed said, “Well, I’ve had enough excitement for one night…look out!” He had seen two horses in the middle of the highway. Lee was in enough of a stupor to have not seen them, then jerked his head up and hit the brakes.
Too late. The Merc hit them both head on. The horses flew over the hood and struck the roof, peeling it back and spilling their insides into the car’s interior. Ed managed to get the car stopped and we dazedly looked around. No one was hurt, but we were all drenched in blood and the contents of the horse’s innards.
A passerby saw the accident, drove to the diner in town and called the cops. Everyone in the café drove out to see the carnage. As a friend from the diner walked up, Lee went over, covered in blood, stomach contents, and shit. He said, “Can you smell any beer on my breath?”
Note: The events in the story are true, but from two events. I have changed the names to protect the guilty.
When I was 59, I was diagnosed with ADD. What I thought was my fatal flaw turned out to be some weak wiring in my brain. With some cognitive therapy and medication, I can now write. Some.
The other problem with writing is that I am having trouble adjusting to retirement. I need structure in my life and work provided that. I have a part-time job, but there is very little work in the cold months. So, how to get structure?
1. Make a plan for the week.
2. Shoes on in the morning.
3. A set of goals that are reflected in the plan.
4. Get out of the house to write. Coffee shop.
5. Regular exercise.
I have these goals and sometimes I actually follow them. Another big help is the writer’s meetup I attend every other week. I have also enrolled in a memoir writing class.
What is happening? The website is up, and has content. I plan at least one new post every week. There may be more. Stay tuned.
You get home around 6:00 PM after running around town all day getting ready for a trip to South Dakota. It is spring, and time to sell the cheap jewelry to the tourists headed to Mount Rushmore.
You start the rice for a stir fry and the phone rings. You reach over and pick up. “Hello.” You say.
“Hello.” Your father says. “I’m in the hospital. It looks like I had a heart attack last night.”
You sway; sit down on the kitchen chair. “Oh no. How are you doing? What happened?”
“I was lying on the couch about 7:30 and started having chest pains. I realized what was happening and called 911. The Paramedics came and hauled me to the hospital right away. I’m in the cardiac unit here.”
You say, “Are you in pain? What do the doctors say?”
He says, “I have to be here a few days while they run tests and decide what to do with me.”
“I’ll come over there in the morning.” You say, stomach already upset from the acid dump at the words “heart attack”.
You don’t want this to be happening. As if getting ready to go to South Dakota for another season with that fat little hater of a partner isn’t enough, now your father is sick. You call the partner. “My dad had a heart attack last night and is in the hospital. I’m on my way there in the morning.”
“I’m sorry. You do what you need to do and keep me posted. We still have some time.”
Next morning you throw your backpack in the cab of the Toyota and head over the hill to Grand Junction. You are a bit scared, but mostly feeling the familiar numbness of a life that seems to be mired in a stagnant backwater. You reflect that you seem to be repeating your father’s life. Both having a routine marriage that ended badly and slipping into a progression of days filled with familiar activity, but nothing meaningful.
At the hospital, you see a man who is obviously afraid, speaking tentatively, “Well, I wasn’t planning on this happening. I’m not sure what happens next.” You see that he does not want to say how he is really feeling and you don’t want to either. What a pair.
The next two weeks are no different. You say, “What does the doctor want to do about recovery activities? We need to get you going again.
He gives a noncommittal shrug, not wanting to tell me much at all. You give up pushing, go buy him a throw for the couch he spends most of his time on. He seems shocked I would buy him a comforter, but says nothing.
You take him on drives out into the country. He used to like that when you were a kid. You see him sneaking a nitroglycerine pill from time to time, but he won’t admit he is in pain.
One morning two weeks after he came home you hear clattering in the kitchen. He is opening cupboards, closing them, getting pots and pans out, putting them back. You say, “What’s going on?”
He looks up, says, “What’s the deal?” His look is confused and genuinely scared.
You think, say “I think you are having a stroke.” You get him in the car and go back to the hospital. After two days he seems to be thinking better, but he conceals his physical weakness.
That afternoon, the floor nurse calls. “Your father is having another of his fainting spells.” He has never had a fainting spell. You walk through the open door of his hospital room. He is dead. No one is around. No shroud, just a dead man with no false teeth in his mouth.
(This is about my father’s death. He died in 1978.)
It was one of those bleak, cold January days, too cold for a heavy snow, but enough snow was flying to cut visibility to less than 100 yards. On the D&RGW Railroad in 1924, the trains ran on train orders, instructions detailing where each train on the line was to be at any given time. The train orders told each train when and where to pull into a passing track to let an oncoming train go by.
At 5:00 PM on January 17, 1924, Eastbound Freight #320 was to enter the Shoshone siding and wait for a westbound train to pass. Visibility was so poor that the engineer had slowed to 15 MPH instead of the normal 20 MPH. My grandfather Will was the rear brakeman on #320 and heard the conductor say that there was no way they could get to Shoshone and they would pull in to the passing track at No Name, just east of Glenwood Springs.
Will went out on the platform and was able to signal to the head brakeman in the engine to pull the train in at No Name. The train lurched through the switch and stopped. Will jumped down and threw the switch back to the main line, then the train moved along the siding to just around a bend and stopped. This was a violation of the train orders, but not much, and the crew felt safe in stopping early.
The head brakeman was walking back to the caboose for a cup of coffee when he saw the other engine’s headlight illuminating the snow just around the curve, its wheels’ flanges squealing on the rails.
“Oh, shit.” He thought as he frantically signaled with his lantern back to the engine to start the train moving. He ran yelling to the caboose just as Will looked out the back window and saw the headlight and realized the coming train, brakes squealing and whistle screaming, was going to hit them.
“Run forward!” Will yelled at the conductor as he started to climb the ladder up to the cupola, thinking to get above the impact. The train’s engine struck the wooden caboose and the back half splintered, breaking a steam line on the engine. The steam rushed into the wreckage just as the conductor jumped out and Will’s forehead hit the ladder.
He pulled himself up, blinking blood out of his eyes, thinking “If they were going any faster, we’d be dead.”
Friday, January 25. Will walked up the walk 729 Gunnison Avenue in Grand Junction. Pearl met him at the door. “Well, how did it go?” She asked.
Will entered the parlor and sat heavily in the first chair. “The superintendent fired the whole crew for disobeying the train orders. We talked about the storm slowing us down, but it didn’t matter.” He said wearily.
It is 1887 in North Texas and Lee Willits’ ranch is not doing well. Lee applied and got a job as a ranch foreman in Colorado. The next thing was to make the move. With all the ranch equipment and a horse herd, he decided to travel with wagons. His daughter Pearl drove one of the wagons.
They travelled from Texas into New Mexico, then north into Southern Colorado and Taylor Park, where Crested Butte is located. The task then was to get over the Elk Mountains to Aspen and down the Roaring Fork River to El Jebel Ranch north of Basalt.
The wagon road from Taylor Park to Aspen went over Pearl Pass. At 12,700 feet high, it was steep, narrow, and rocky. They traveled the road with more than one wagon, the horse herd, and probably with Lee on his horse. It is a shelf road, with the mountain rising on one side of the road and a steep drop-off into a canyon on the other. The road sloped to the outside, and was only wide enough for one wagon. The Willits family was not familiar with mountain roads and misjudged how long it would take to get over the pass to Ashcroft, today a ghost town outside Aspen. They got in at 11:00 PM.
Pearl drove her wagon down that mountain road in the dark. She was a tough kid, though, at twelve years old. She must have been terrified, as she told that story the rest of her life. The family settled down and Lee did well, acquiring land of his own and working it as well as the big El Jebel ranch. Pearl, her two sisters and a brother went to Basalt schools.
As Basalt was near Aspen, an important mining town, it was served by two railroads. A spur of the Denver and Rio Grande Western came up the Roaring Fork from Glenwood Springs; and the Colorado Midland came over the Continental Divide from Leadville via Hagerman Pass, again over 12,000 feet high. One of the railroaders on the Midland was William Shanks, my grandfather.
Will was a conductor on the Midland, assigned his own red caboose, and in charge of the train. He lived in Leadville, a division point on the Midland. In the morning his train went west past Turquoise Lake, over the pass, and down the scenic Frying Pan River Valley to Basalt. At that point, another crew took the train on to Grand Junction. Will laid over in Basalt and took another train to Leadville the next day.
There he was in Basalt two or three nights a week, and he met Pearl, by that time a mountain girl in her own right. After a courtship they married and she lived in Leadville with Will. They had three children; all born at the ranch in Basalt, as it was much safer having babies at 6500 feet in Basalt rather than over 10,000 feet elevation in Leadville in the days before antibiotics. The middle of the three children was Rollin, my father.
I’m in lower downtown, Denver. It’s January 12, a Friday evening and the temperature is four degrees. It hasn’t gotten above 18 degrees in a week. There are a few inches of dirty snow on the ground, sidewalks and streets are icy. Tempers are short, people irritated.
I fit right in. We were supposed to meet at the new sushi bar 45 minutes ago. The place was crowded, a line of chilled people waiting to get in. She isn’t there. I call, her phone goes right to voice mail. My feet are cold, I start worrying about frostbite on the ear that got frostbitten on Loveland Pass years ago. I wait for thirty minutes and then head for my car.
It is a bit of a walk to my car. I know a spot on Champa that doesn’t have a meter, and people seem to avoid it. I get colder as I walk. I cross the street to the bus station. Time to warm up a little. I go in. The place is crowded, others warming up, travelers coming and going. I stomp and wiggle for a few minutes, then decide to cut through the bus bay for a short cut.
I go out the door to a noisy, smelly, frigid bus loading bay. Passengers are lining up for their busses, the off-duty cop is arguing with someone over his cell phone, ignoring the surroundings. A well-dressed African-American woman is trying to usher her four children to a waiting bus in the second row.
She looks distraught, the children, ages around four to nine, look cold, confused, and scared. The driver is loading luggage, passengers groping through layers of clothing for their tickets. A man walks through the bus entrance into the bay. African-American, he is wearing a tan trench coat, dark wool trousers, wingtips, and a gray fedora. He is talking on his phone when the youngest child looks up and sees him.
“Daddy!” She cries, running toward him. He lowers the phone as he sees her. She stops in front of a bus, realizing the man is not her father. The bus starts moving, the driver not seeing the little girl. The bus hits her, knocking her down and running over her head.
Screams, panic, people running to the accident, people running away. Blood, already starting to freeze, runs out from under the bus past small, motionless feet. The mother collapses, the cop moving toward her. Quickly, firefighters and paramedics run in. I vomit.
Still retching, I walk into the waiting room and sink onto a bench. Bad evening.