How Deregulation Killed The Wild West

Our guest blogger is Todd Darling, a documentary filmmaker whose film, “A Snow Mobile For George,” is being featured tonight in Washington, D.C., by Reel Progress.

Back on January 13, 2004, when I left Los Angeles loaded down with cameras, winter gear, and a threadbare credit card, few, if any heads would turn at the mention of “deregulation.” Head movement would be limited to a nod, as in “nod out.”

Wall Street’s wipe out changes that. Now we realize that we let the fox into the hen house, and now the fox wants to be reimbursed for the chickens he ate. But, when I set out to make “A Snow Mobile for George,” a film about environmental deregulation, the concept of deregulation was too abstract for most viewers. That’s why I picked the environment because the effects of deregulation had no place to hide. My drive across America, trailing my two-stroke snowmobile, looking for tales of environmental deregulation, didn’t turn up a lot of joy. The reason why should not have surprised me. Simply put, the same deregulation that mangled the environment, also ruined people’s lives. Watch the trailer:

This discovery hit us hard out on a snow-covered ridge in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. A tall cowboy told us his land had been invaded by oil companies. They had come onto his land, uninvited, looking for natural gas — “Coal Bed Methane.” The companies drilled four wells every 80 acres, built roads, installed pipe lines, pumped away his water supplies, polluted his top-soil, installed noisy pressure stations, damaged the natural vegetation, and he had almost no say in the matter. He has been virtually forced off his own private land.


My two friends and I were stunned. Here’s a gun-toting, 6’5″ cowboy with a dog and pick-up truck, the very icon of American independence, telling us, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. What can I do? We’re powerless.”

When Wyoming land was homesteaded a hundred years ago, the ranchers owned the surface rights, but the government kept the rights to the oil, coal, gas, or whatever minerals might lie beneath the surface. The federal government first started selling hundreds of natural gas leases under the Powder River Basin during the Clinton years. New technology had been developed to extract methane gas but it requires that huge amounts of water be pumped out first. The only protection for the ranchers were the federal clean water regulations listed in the Clean Water Act, and enforced partially by the EPA’s “Environmental Impact Report” system.

In 2001, this protection was quickly flushed out and executed by J. Steven Griles, a Bush appointee to the Interior Department. According the Department’s Inspector General, Griles suppressed the key clean water considerations in the Environmental Impact Reports, and then rammed through the drilling permits. Previously, Griles had been working as a lobbyist for oil and coal companies with gas wells and mineral interests in Wyoming. Once Griles had suppressed consideration of the clean water regulations a drilling boom began. In six years the number of total gas wells ever drilled in the United States doubled; most in the Mountain West. 15,000 wells in Wyoming alone, drilled in less than five years. Griles was so crooked he ended up in jail — in 2007, he pleaded guilty to being involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal. By then, the damage had been done.

And the millions and millions of barrels of water the oil companies pumped out? The sodium-rich water kills the natural vegetation, and in a chemical surprise, combines with the region’s clay soil and turns it into something like concrete. It is an environmental nightmare, poised to ruin the viability of one of our nation’s most iconic symbols of independence, the Wyoming cattle rancher.

Long before the Wall Street fiasco of 2008, ranchers in the Powder River Basin could recite the recipe for deregulation disaster: privatize the profit, and socialize the cost. Let corporate insiders write the rules, reap the rewards, and then make the public clean up the devastation.


There are many portents that make this election a watershed for our nation, and maybe our planet. Any one of us can run out of luck, run out of options, and run out of time. Dead is dead. In my view, whoever wins this election must swear: “No industry insiders appointed to any regulatory position,” and that guy must swear to at least start to clean house. Otherwise, we have to ask ourselves, what adult will stand up to protect our public resources, our democracy or our environment?

Todd Darling will appear with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Francesca Grifo and the Center for American Progress’s Reece Rushing and Daniel J. Weiss at tonight’s Reel Progress screening.