Other energy giants such as Exxon, Gulf, Mobil, and Getty Oil also have coal holdings in the area. But so far Tenneco is the only company with water—a critical element in synthetic-fuel production. Tenneco estimates it will require at least 10,000 acre-feet of water annually to run its plant. The company beat the 1973 Montana limitation on new water users on the Yellowstone and has rights to take 80,650 acre-feet of water from the river if it wants to. Some of this it may want to sell to other energy developers.
But Tenneco’s Wibaux site sits six miles outside the Yellowstone basin. Under the Yellowstone Compact—a 1951 interstate agreement signed by Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota—all three states have to approve any diversion of water outside the basin. Tenneco has challenged this in court.
But, I asked, why doesn’t the company just shift its plant site a couple of wheat fields away from its coal mine to put it inside the river basin?
“It costs a lot more to move coal than it does to move water,” Gary explained.
Environmentalists worry that Tenneco’s challenge may have far-reaching effects on the Yellowstone. If Tenneco is successful, they fear a lot more water will be sold for use outside the basin. “That could disrupt Montana’s attempts to establish its own system of allocating water within the state,” argues University of Montana law professor Albert W. Stone, a water-law expert. “It certainly would mean more pressure to dam the river so the flow is evened out.”
From the small windswept rise where I stood a few days later, it seemed hard to believe the Yellowstone is a river under siege. Below me the river coiled around one last gravel bar and was swept away by the Missouri, equally flat, equally deserted. The two rivers, joined now, disappeared eastward across the cold North Dakota prairie.
At this quiet confluence a line of small white crosses offered silent testimony to frontier times: “Norman Bartholomew, Pvt. , U. S. Infantry, Nov. 3, 1871—inebriation . . William H. Lee, Sept. 19, 1868—killed by Indians . . . Owl Headress, Feb. 8, 1870—beaten to death. . . .”
The tiny cemetery had served Fort Buford, a once bustling outpost on the fledgling nation’s westernmost frontier. The cluster of small crosses—an isolated reminder of the perils of 19th-century expansion—was all but lost beneath the vast gray sky, the dead long forgotten.
Who knows how many others—plainsmen, painted warriors, nervous settlers—stood on this same spot and wondered about the future. They are gone now, those nameless ones, along with almost all trace of their endeavors. There will be others with new plans, new demands. But whatever happens, whatever the pressures, the land and the river will endure.