In 1981, an oilman named George Mitchell developed a fixation on a geologic formation called the Barnett Shale, near Fort Worth, Texas, in which some promising drilling prospects were locked under seemingly unbreachable rock. His company held a long-term contract with a pipeline business that would pay high prices so long as Mitchell could keep supplying natural gas, but his company’s fields were drying up. He focussed his efforts on the Barnett formation, which happened to be near his company’s processing plant and the pipeline. “My engineers kept telling me, ‘You are wasting your money, Mitchell,’ ” the oilman told Forbes, in 2009. “And I said, ‘Well, damn it, let’s figure this thing out, because there’s no question there is a tremendous source bed that’s about 250 feet thick.’ “
Throughout the eighties and most of the nineties, the company labored over how to crack the Barnett. By 1994, Mitchell had drilled a hundred and ten wells into the largest field in the Barnett; all other companies combined had drilled eleven. Very few hit pay dirt. But the sheer duration of the project compelled the Mitchell engineers to experiment. In 1997, one of them, Nick Steinsberger, recommended a fluid mix—made from sand, water, and the guar bean, a gummy legume grown mainly in India and Pakistan—that he thought might crack open the rock. The mixture worked, and soon Mitchell was using the fracture technology, and horizontal-drilling techniques. Eventually, the combination turned the Barnett into the second-most productive natural-gas reservoir in the continental United States.
The techniques “triggered a renaissance in North American oil and natural gas production,” Bloomberg explained when Mitchell died, in 2013. (He had sold his company to Devon Energy, in 2001, for about three billion dollars.) New oil and gas reservoirs across the country were unlocked: the Marcellus Shale, centered in Pennsylvania, and the Bakken, in North Dakota. The innovations helped to solve—at least for a time, while oil and gas prices were high—the problem of American dependence on foreign oil. More subtly, they transformed the political economy of rural America.
Those wells are mostly on one side of a sharp political and economic divide. In this year’s election, Hillary Clinton won just under five hundred of America’s roughly three thousand counties. But those five-hundred-odd counties were populous enough that she received the most votes cast for President; even more striking, as the Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley found, those few Clinton counties are responsible for more than two-thirds of national G.D.P. The news from rural America, shrouded by the opiate crisis, has been almost unstintingly bleak. Still, squint at those drilling rigs and you can imagine a future. The American economy is now mostly arranged around people, but in rural places hopes for prosperity are often vested in the land.
This week, President-elect Donald Trump announced that his nominee for Interior Secretary will be Ryan Zinke, a fifty-five-year-old congressman from Montana. Zinke, who was a football player and geology major at the University of Oregon, spent nearly a quarter century as a Navy SEAL, before entering the Montana Senate, in 2009, and the U.S. House, last year. As a politician, Zinke has played up his military record, with some swagger: his official Twitter feed has referred to him as Commander Zinke, and, as Dan Brooks pointed out in the Times Magazine, he has preferred to punctuate exchanges with figures such as Wolf Blitzer with the naval salutation “bravo zulu.” Now, if confirmed by the Senate, Zinke stands to oversee the management and use of roughly a fifth of the land in the United States.
Zinke’s perspective on public lands has been moderate, at least for the post-Tea Party era. He does not favor selling them off (though he would like to see more extraction). He is convinced that the climate is changing (though he has been more equivocal about the degree of human culpability). “You know, if you go up to Glacier Park and you have your lunch on one of the glaciers, you will see the glacier recede while you eat lunch,” Zinke said last year. For generations, the Interior Department has worked amid the tension between the promise of preservation and the promise of jobs, emphasizing conservation during Democratic Administrations and extraction during Republican ones. But those pressures are more poignant now, when the bleakness of rural places has deepened, when the shale towns provide examples of how a boom can grip a desolate place, and the land is the vector for hope.
During the past year, two prophetic movements have swept the American West, ideologically distinct but with a common focus on the government’s use of Western land. In January, Ammon Bundy led a right-wing armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in eastern Oregon. “While we’re here,” he said, “what we’re going to be doing is freeing these lands up and getting the ranchers back to ranching, and getting the miners back to mining, getting the loggers back to logging.” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard led the left-wing resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, which began in the spring, arguing that government-approved development would poison and desecrate sacred lands. “It is the U.S. Army Corps that is allowing these sites to be destroyed,” Allard wrote in September. The two movements shared a spiritual investment in the land, and a conviction that the federal government both misunderstood its proper uses and was diverting its worth to distant people. One of the stranger details from the long saga of Standing Rock is that Cliven Bundy’s wife and children once tried to join the protest.
Since last week, when the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to consider alternate sites for the Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock has fallen out of the news. But Trump’s spokesman has said that the President-elect favors the pipeline, and executives at the company building it, Energy Transfer Partners, have been optimistic about the fate of their project under the new Administration. At the least, it is likely to be one of the first major decisions that Zinke faces. Resting on that decision, and others that follow, are the fate of the vast sections of the American West that Mitchell helped to crack open, and the communities that hope the land Zinke administers might be the hinge between their past and their future. It is a remarkable geography. In its extent, and in its spiritual weight, it is its own country.