ABOUT SUBLETTE COUNTY

“We really had no idea what we were getting into”
Pinedale Experiences Its First Energy Boom

“For me, it’s a bittersweet because I can sit here with this gorgeous clinic. I have every tool. My pocket is full of change. But I really cry because we don’t have our sweet little quiet town.” Nurse practitioner and Pinedale, Wyoming native Leslie Rozier spoke those words during her interview for this oral history project in which she reacted to energy development impact to her community. Wyoming has relied heavily on natural resource wealth due mostly to just the sheer amount of valuable minerals, including oil, coal, uranium, and natural gas, in the state’s geologic formations. But local communities, such as Pinedale, generally have had little say over the use of adjacent mineral deposits developed by multinational companies headquartered over half a continent away. The powerful changes caused by a boom-and-bust cycle generated by the extraction of mineral resources have become synonymous with the Wyoming economy.

Sublette County, Wyoming experienced a dramatic natural gas boom beginning around 2000. Sublette is a sparsely populated rural county in western Wyoming with two main towns of Pinedale (north county) and Big Piney (south county), with smaller communities of Cora, Boulder, Daniel and La Barge. However, this was not the county’s first foray into minerals development. Oil was reported as early as 1840s by emigrants traveling through what is now Sublette County, who used it to grease their wagon wheels. The first drilling in the area took place in 1907 near the southern border of the county in what became the La Barge Oil Field. The first producing well, however, did not occur until 1923. Other successes soon followed in the southern end of the county near present day La Barge. Large scale production, however, was hampered by inadequate transportation of the crude to a market.

By 1938, drilling moved a few miles north to the Dry Piney Field where some oil and gas were drilled. Drilling expanded in the 1940s when the Tiptop Unit was developed. This could be considered Big Piney’s first energy boom, which ended with the inevitable bust. A second boom, the Big Piney Gas Field, occurred in 1952. It was immediately successful with a ready-made market provided by the Pacific Northwest pipeline, running from southern Colorado’s San Juan Basin to the state of Washington. In 1956, an additional pipeline was built to Opal near the southern end of Sublette County to tap the field. By 1978, the Big Piney-LaBarge complex, consisting of the Tiptop, Dry Piney, Hogsback, LaBarge and Big Piney Oil and Gas Fields, produced an estimated 22 million barrels of oil and 537 million cubic feet of gas. Oil and gas production continued throughout the 1980s, resulting in a significant boom yet again. The amounts were large for the time, but would be dwarfed by production in the fields to the east in just a few decades.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, oil and gas extraction impacted the southern end of Sublette County almost exclusively. This changed in the early 1990s, when new technology enabled the successful drilling of natural gas closer to Pinedale, while still continuing to impact Big Piney. New natural gas fields, Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline, were heralded by industry as two of the most significant onshore natural gas discoveries in the second half of the 20th century.

Big Piney has seen many working people throughout its history, especially cowboys for the local ranches and those following the work in the oil and gas fields. It is common for people to resent new folks moving into their home town, and Big Piney was no different. Some natives referred to the new energy workers as “oil field trash” in all the booms. Yet, at the same time, locals were generally appreciative of the money generated during the boom times, both for individuals and collectively as a community. Over time, especially when it came to energy industry management, local citizens welcomed new residents to the Big Piney community. Perhaps because the southern end of the county has experienced more booms, it may be they are more willing to accept transient workers into their area.

A similar experience occurred in Pinedale starting in the 1990s. While many in the community welcomed the economic opportunities brought to the area, there was still resentment to the workers coming to Pinedale to take advantage of the gas field work. Most workers came from other areas in the country, especially Texas and Louisiana, where traditions and customs were different from Wyoming. Generally, the fear of the “oil field trash” gave way to acceptance, especially, again, when it came to management personnel who relocated to the area with their families and became active participants in the community.

Pinedale and the surrounding area differ in one regard to Big Piney in that it was becoming a popular retirement community in the 1990s. Retirees from around the country have “discovered” Pinedale, built a retirement home, and sought to settle into their older years in a calm, beautiful area. Hopes for their quiet retirement were dashed with the onset of the gas boom. The small, peaceful town gave way to heavy truck traffic and groups of transient workers straining community services. Even more stressful was the air pollution filling the clear Wyoming air, with additional concerns about possible water pollution from the energy extraction. With their incomes already secured in their retirement years, Pinedale retirees did not need the economic opportunities brought to the area by the energy industry.

The national economic downturn in 2008 slowed the natural gas extraction from the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline, but the work never stopped. Rather, the Big Piney and Pinedale communities have experienced a welcomed stabilization. The continued natural gas extraction helps maintain the communities financially, and at a more manageable pace. Elevated pollution still causes ozone alerts and the uncertainty of the hydraulic fracturing continues to frustrate many area citizens. All the while, the communities are enjoying high tax revenues brought on by the energy extraction in the county. The future is always uncertain, yet it appears at this point Sublette County will continue to enjoy the economic benefits as well as the burden of the social and environmental problems brought on by the energy extraction.

The oral history project conducted by American Heritage Center’s Simpson Institute brings out all of the nuances of a rural town facing an unfamiliar set of circumstances brought on by the rapid pace of mineral development. I nexperience is blended with community and national obligation, shock is mingled with entrepreneurial spirit, excitement turn s , at times, to ambivalence and even melancholy, and the process begins of coming to terms with some of the essentials when it came to mitigating and accepting the community changes .

Ann Chambers Noble
Sublette County Historian