Niobrara Shale Oil Play Oral History Project

Many oral history projects that deal with energy development’s effects on a community do interviews either while the development is occurring or months or years after the fact.  This project turns the tables on that notion.  What about the expectations and impacts before development has occurred?  This oral history project is being conducted in an area of potential oil development in Wyoming’s Niobrara Shale, a shale rock formation that not only covers the southeast portion of Wyoming but also Northeast Colorado, Northwest Kansas, and Southwest Nebraska.  Primarily an oil play, it is in the Denver-Julesburg Basin, which has long been a major oil and gas province.  An emerging play, the Niobrara is in its early stages.  From 2009 through 2010, companies were busy leasing land for future drilling.  Since then, activity has greatly slowed causing a lull and a time of uncertainty for communities in Converse, Goshen, Platte and Laramie counties, although Converse County has seen a recent increase in drilling.  Community members have heard some in the oil industry compare the Niobrara Play to North Dakota’s booming Bakken shale formation, although others in the industry feel that view is far too optimistic. So community members are left wondering – is a boom on our horizon?  Will development instead be slow and steady?  Or is it all just a fizzle?

Thanks to funding from the UW School of Energy Resources, the UW American Heritage Center’s Simpson Institute has been able to contract with UW Television to film over 25 interviews with landowners, town residents, officials, and business owners in Southeast Wyoming, with further interviews expected.  A gamut of opinions about potential oil development near their communities has surfaced in these interviews.  As an example of the multifaceted insights already gained from this project, we have provided an interview for you to view.

The interview is with John and Nancy Kessler, landowners near LaGrange, Wyoming.  John is a Wyoming native who was raised on the property they currently own.  Nancy was raised in Nebraska.  Both attended the University of Wyoming, where they met and later married in 1984.  Nancy is a sixth grade teacher at LaGrange Elementary School.  John runs the family’s cow-calf operation.  They are the parents of two college-age children.  The Kesslers leased a portion of their land for oil development.  In their interview, they talk of their love of rural life, their experience with the oil industry thus far, and their hopes and concerns if oil development takes off in their area.

The Kesslers discuss their family history with the oil industry, their Wyoming roots, mineral rights, and whether oil development will help Wyoming young people find employment in the state.

The Kesslers continue to discuss whether oil development will help Wyoming young people find employment in the state. We also hear about benefits the Kesslers have seen from oil lease revenue, the impacts of oil development on their community, and their faith in the integrity of the oil company drilling in their area.

In this section, the Kesslers address the water situation in their area, hydraulic fracturing concerns, and hopes that state regulations will assure water safety.  The Kesslers also talk about what perceptions landmen* and oil industry probably have of Wyoming residents and their experiences (and a neighbor’s) with landmen.

John and Nancy Kessler continue to discuss their experiences with landmen and John’s regret that now he feels he must contact a lawyer when approached by landmen or face the threat of eminent domain.

* According to the website of the American Association of Petroleum Landmen (, landmen provide services to the oil and gas industry that include: negotiating for the acquisition or divestiture of mineral rights; negotiating business agreements that provide for the exploration for and/or development of minerals; determining ownership in minerals through the research of public and private records; reviewing the status of title, curing title defects and otherwise reducing title risk associated with ownership in minerals; managing rights and/or obligations derived from ownership of interests in minerals; and unitizing or pooling of interests in minerals.

–Leslie Waggener, Simpson Institute Archivist

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