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Drilling in the Jonah Field (Photo: SkyTruth/EcoFlight)

The Truth from Above

After working for 15 years as an exploration consultant to the oil-and-gas industry, using satellite imagery to hunt for likely drilling sites, John Amos had a road-to-Damascus moment when he viewed satellite imagery of wells in the Jonah natural gas field, in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Valley.

“I started seeing stuff on the satellite imagery that didn’t square with the things I was hearing either from industry or from the federal agencies responsible for managing those lands,” recalls Amos. “It seemed strange to me that a consultant in the industry wouldn’t know these things were going on.”

Both the extent and the impact of oil-and-gas production in the Rocky Mountain West, Amos realized, were far larger than the energy industry or the federal agencies were letting on. That discovery led him to found SkyTruth, a high-tech environmental outfit based in Amos’ home in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and dedicated to collecting and disseminating satellite imagery that documents the effects of mining and drilling activities around the world.

Awarded non-profit status in 2002, SkyTruth collects raw digital data from public domain sources like the U.S Geological Survey and NASA as well as Google Earth, then processes it into images, maps and graphics that document the landscape impacts of extractive industries including oil and natural-gas drilling, commercial fishing, and mining. Portrayed on SkyTruth’s Web site in vivid, sequential color shots taken over a period of years, the images demonstrate conclusively that, when it comes to resource extraction, what we are told often doesn’t jibe with what’s actually going on.

“These are public resources, and the public should have a say in how they’re managed,” Amos points out. “I think the public is being kindof misled. The technology exists to show people what’s happening to these places, and let them see it with their own eyes. To give them a first-hand experience to understand what’s really happening.”

Amos is among a small cadre of tech-savvy green activists, many of whom got their start in the energy or info-tech businesses, who are changing the terms of the argument over appropriate use of public lands.

Google Earth, Amos says, has “revolutionized environmental communications.”

Included on the site are environmental disasters as far afield as Irian Jaya, where the Denver-based Freeport McMoran mining concern has deposited gold-mine tailings across huge swathes of the lowland forests along rivers, and the Yanacocha gold and copper mine in Peru. Most of these areas are so remote that few people other than company employees — and the locals, who are usually powerless to control what goes on in their homelands — will ever see them.

Early in January the 10-min. video of drilling in western Wyoming, including the Upper Green, went up on YouTube and is generating new attention for SkyTruth and the wealth of photographic documentation now available online. The first BLM environmental-impact statement for the Jonah Field estimated that no more than 500 wells would be drilled to remove all the accessible gas, over 15 years. Within less than five years, according to SkyTruth, there were more than 500 drilled, and the industry sought and won permits last year for another 3100.

The BLM has also released a plan to increase the number of wells on the neighboring Pinedale Anticline field, currently permitted for 700 sites, to 4400. The public-comment period on that plan is now open, and it closes on Feb. 13.

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  1. Richard,

    Thank you for bringing John Amos ‘ Sky Truth to a larger audience.

    The surreal maze of roads that serve the drilling is also seen on Sky Truth’s photos. It is a huge and growing single use landscape, public lands simply given over to private industry, with
    the BLM using taxpayer money to facilitate the industrialization of their own land. When the gas is gone, they will have to pay for the cleanup and the weeds and the reclamation, too.

    Why is this happening? Why do we have to have Sky Truth to get the facts about public lands development? Why would anyone in charge of stewarding these lands not tell the truth about what they were doing? Are they ashamed of it?


  2. Richard:

    Good stuff.

  3. Hal

    I think we need SkyTruth because:

    Government lies.

    Industry lies.

    The press ignores the lies.


  4. Robert: A few years back, I watched in awe as a musician, doing some R&R at a friend’s house after being on tour, used a laptop computer and some digital photos to create a picture. He had the band leader with both hands outstretched, receiving applause, and he had pictures of himself and another guitar player. When he was done, the band leader was holding the severed heads of his guitar players, dripping blood, one in each outstretched hand. I knew then that I could never truly believe another photograph.

    Everyday, faux photos course through the internet, and some take your breath away, others bring outrage. It will take the written word, from aerial observers, to tell the truth. And more than one.

    I have used aerial photos my whole life to evaluate property for sale, and timber. But you have to walk the geography, “ground truth it”, to corroborate what is seen from the air.

    And, you cannot say only government and industry will lie, unless you want to include that part of government involved in things environmental, and the NGO’s that lie right with them, in an unholy conspiracy. I only say that because I once found a deed filing where the USFS had purchased land from the Trust for Public Lands, and TPL had bought the land from an elderly seller. My government had paid twice what TPL had paid for the land, in a two day period, and it was only then that I had the epiphany that perhaps the Clinton Administration was funding NGO’s by the backdoor through land purchases. I would have kicked myself had I not remembered my experience riding fence for a big ranch owned by a corporate CEO (free house, firewood, and beef, a good deal for a kid going to college). The ranch used registered Devon bulls on its commercial herd, and the CEO ranch owner, who also headed the State Highway Commission, plus our state’s Senior US Senator, a Kennedy appointee to a big Postmaster job, and a soon to be State Governor were the only Devon cattle breeders in the State. In my youthful ignorance, I made no connection when the “boys” sporting Open Road Stetsons and twill pants came in embassy blue Buicks to brandings. Only after I read the Al Gore story and the part where Armond Hammer, now revealed as Joe Stalin’s chief US spy, head of Occidental Oil, had befriended Al Gore Sr. in 1939 and got him started in Arab horses and Angus cattle did that light go on. The Tennessee farm neighbors were always jealous that Al Sr. got tens of thousands of dollars for his bulls from celebrity buyers, and their bulls only brought a thousand at best, and some were even better bulls. A US Senator’s wages and a stump ranch don’t produce the money to allow a man to put up his family in a posh hotel 11 months of the year. Unless, of course, he had some bulls that sold for unbelievable prices.

    I might note that all the mentioned characters were Democrats, and great friends on the environment. If the need for personal survival precludes supporting all things environmental, they will change in a heartbeat. It is all a lie. Or that is the incovenient truth that I see.

    A wise man once said “Don’t get in a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel, ’cause you ain’t a gonna win.” This format gives people a chance. Thank you.

  5. I am more than aware of the fact that some people can buy more ink than others. I see that in action every day.

    Are you trying to say that “Sky Truth” is promulgating false pictures? I for one know it is not.

    The rest is a political diatribe, to which you’re welcome. I know many so-called environmentalists who have gone over to the Dark Side, men and women in gray flannel suits and birkenstocks. I call it the conservation industry,and it encompasses all of the established groups. Just like every other industry.

    That doesn’t mean government and industry isn’t lying about what is happening in the gas, coalbed methanen, and oil fields of Wyoming.

  6. Montana Water Wonk

    Outstanding article and excellent video from Skytruth. This region needs more commentary about CBM. The industry is now moving into Montana using selected successes in Wyoming and piles of cash to buy influence. Recently in the Billings area a CBM company paid for an hour long program to run twice in a one week. Promoting the “need” for CBM development in the Powder River Basin of Montana and directly attacking a regional conservation non profit. The overt propaganda was unbelievable. It is absolutely true that much of the media ignores the issue or promotes the industry point of view when reporting news about CBM. Another resource about how CBM development impacts water is

  7. Do you have the location for this? I can’t make oout what that front building site is. The only rig I can identify is just behind that. The rest look like pads for completed wells. There might be one other rig in the distance.
    Ultimately the pads are a very small foot print. Wildlife generally has no problem being around either the rigs or the wells. The old pumps lft in the Baroil area are much bigger and there are tons of deer and elk in that area, as well as sage chickens and wild horses.

  8. You know what. We do not live above. Yes, it looks bad from the air, but on the ground where wildlife and we exist and live there is vegetation between drill pads. The wildlife is suppressed during times of road building and drilling but they like us humans adapt. You know when God created us he game man dominion over the earth. With proper management the wild life will survive even grater around the well pads, and in 20 years from now when the site is reclaimed and seeded, it will no longer be a visual problem either. Those sites that will be reclaimed will be in better condition than the lands around it, as cattle have over grazed it for years any way.

    It is off the main roads and in backcountry to begin with. People need to get over it and move on with life.

  9. “Brought into right relationships with the wilderness,
    man would see that his appropriation of Earth’s resources
    beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance
    and begat ultimate loss and poverty by all.” ~ John Muir