Recently retired Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the case for hydraulic fracturing Monday in Denver, suggesting that the controversial drilling technology is helping to wean the nation off of foreign oil supplies.
Salazar, who stepped down from his post with President Barack Obama’s administration in April after running the department for more than four years, spoke at the Wirth Chair Sustainability Awards at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Denver. The Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development was created in 1983 within the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs to help advance a message of sustainable development.
The former Colorado U.S. senator’s remarks came just days after he announced that he is joining the law firm WilmerHale as a partner at its newly created Denver office. As part of his duties, he will handle energy, environment and natural resources issues, drawing upon his experience overseeing such work for the nation as interior secretary.
University of Colorado Denver
Salazar pointed to significant progress in lowering the nation’s demand for foreign oil, pointing out that in 2005, the United States was importing 60 percent of its oil, while today the nation is importing less than 40 percent of its oil.
“We have come a long way in achieving those policy objectives,” stated Salazar.
He said there are several reasons for the decline in foreign demand, including the nation’s increased production of its domestic supply.
“That is driven in large part by the technological innovations of horizontal drilling, which are doing some really great things for access to the resources,” remarked Salazar.
He also placed an emphasis on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling process that employs the pressure of a fluid — often including chemicals, sand and water — to increase extraction rates.
“Hydraulic fracturing, without the gas boom that we have going on in this country, we wouldn’t be at the place that we are today,” attested Salazar.
“Hydraulic fracking is going to be very much a part of our world, and I think it is very important for us as we deal with our national energy needs, our economic needs and environmental security,” he added. “I think natural gas is going to be a very robust part of the nation’s energy portfolio.”
That said, Salazar placed an emphasis on transparency, suggesting that the industry should be forthcoming in disclosing the nature of its practices.
“If we are going to make sure that we avoid the Achilles heel that could have the natural gas industry and our economy essentially stumble, we have to address some of the realities,” he said.
Fracking concerns continue to swirl
The fear of water and air contamination, noise pollution and resources depletion is a growing fear in local commnuities. As the technology has moved into more densely populated regions of Colorado, including the Front Range, citizens have shown increasing unrest.
Boulder County, especially Longmont, has entered the spotlight of the fracking debate after voters there banned the process. The municipality also passed strict rules and regulations that overstep the state’s authority.
At the behest of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist, the state is suing Longmont for having enacted such regulations. The city is also defending itself against a separate lawsuit filed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association over the ban.
Meanwhile, the Boulder City Council just this month approved a one-year moratorium on fracking. The city is considering a ballot measure that would implement an even greater prohibition.
As chief of the nation’s interior, Salazar struggled with finding a balance between fracking, economic development and safety. He called for federal rules on the controversial drilling technique, while also suggesting that fracking can be done safely.
His former department continues to wrestle with the issue. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who replaced Salazar, announced this month that the Interior Department would extend the comment period on a proposed Bureau of Land Management fracking rule by 60 days.
In Colorado, conservationists hailed the extension: “This delay gives Secretary Jewell additional time to hear from communities, businesses and outdoor enthusiasts who were kept out of previous discussions,” read a statement from Trevor Kincaid, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities and former spokesman for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s campaign.
“Oil and gas executives have exercised tremendous influence over these rules,” continued Kincaid. “Now it’s time for the government to listen to people and business owners who are being forced to open their backyards to industrial drilling operations.”
Meanwhile, the energy industry isn’t thrilled with the draft rule either, suggesting that it could slow domestic energy production, while damaging economies. The industry has suggested that states should continue to regulate fracking, opining that federal rules would be duplicative.
A similar debate over who should regulate oil and gas has been taking place in Colorado. But in the state’s case, environmentalists would like control placed in the hands of local governments, while industry officials — along with Hickenlooper — believe that would create a confusing patchwork.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees regulation of the industry, passed rules and regulations this year that created a statewide 500-foot setback on drilling, while also requiring water quality testing both before and after operations.
A handful of Democrats in the legislature attempted to address some of the concerns around fracking this year by pushing at least nine oil and gas bills. But only two made it through, even after watered down by lobbyists, including lobbyists sent by Hickenlooper.
The two bills that made it through require a study to identify the riskiest oil and gas activities in order to create a risk-based strategy for inspecting wells, and an oil and gas operator to report a spill of one barrel or more within 24 hours.
But Democrats had wanted to increase inspections at wells, as well as industry fines, while also prohibiting conflicts of interest on the COGCC and further regulating water quality testing. Some had floated increasing setbacks and offering more power to local governments, but those ideas were never even introduced because of the seemingly insurmountable climb.
Colorado Ethics Watch released a report last month outlining more than $1 million spent on lobbying by the oil and gas industry in the first 10 months of the fiscal year. The group believes the lobbying has an “undue influence” on legislation.
“The level of their influence at all levels of government, including elected officials and regulating bodies themselves, is shocking,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “In a year that saw historic policy changes in several arenas, the oil and gas industry was remarkable in its ability to protect itself from significant legislative change.”
Doug Flanders, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, believes the Ethics Watch report is flawed. For one, Flanders thinks Ethics Watch should take a broader look at lobbying on energy issues.
While the report points out that the oil and gas industry has 27 lobbyists at the Capitol, it fails to mention that conservation groups have nearly 30 lobbyists and have spent millions on elections, states Flanders.
“It’s unfortunate that the Colorado Ethics Watch report is more about achieving polarizing headlines than advancing public education,” said Flanders. “We can only assume that Colorado Ethics Watch is also preparing their next report on the environmental/conservation groups that were very active at the Capitol and who spent millions in the last election cycle.”
COGA declined to comment on the proposed fracking rule by the BLM, or on the Longmont lawsuit, which is still in the motions phase.
The majority of the discussions taking place at the Wirth Chair awards focused on sustainability. Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator who was the inspiration for the Chair’s creation, said there needs to be a greater focus on renewable energy.
“Too many people… view this as being marginal… trendy,” Wirth opined about renewables, speaking to the audience of environmentalists. “It’s something that everybody in this room would be for, but real people don’t want to do.”
Salazar reassured his friend, telling him that there are great advancements taking place in the renewable sector.
“The future of renewable energy is bright,” declared Salazar. “There are certain challenges, but I think at the end of the day, what we’ve accomplished — really in the last four years — is that we have made believers out of skeptics.”
Hickenlooper, who offered brief remarks in presenting an award to University of Colorado Regent Emerita Susan Kirk for her work on sustainability, agreed that the conversation needs to continue, and credited Kirk with helping to engage women.
“You’re never going to have a worldwide sustainability movement if you don’t have women in there,” stated Hickenlooper.
Former Gov. Bill Ritter, who is now the director for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, presented an award to Jim Martin, a former administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency and the former executive director of the Colorado departments of Public Health and Environment and Natural Resources. Ritter appointed Martin to the position at Natural Resources.
The former governor said there needs to be a push to educate the public on renewable issues and climate change, and believes much of that starts with public officials.
“We have this issue as a global population that we have to address it,” said Ritter. “There are solutions, but what we need are people in policymaking decisions and in leadership roles that understand the gravity of this.
“There’s so much distrust; there’s so much feeling sometimes that even approaches animosity,” he continued.
Martin praised Ritter for having led the way in coining the term “new energy economy” and making the concept popular.
“It was… Bill Ritter’s visionary and courageous leadership that made it possible to do clean air, clean jobs…” said Martin.
Also receiving awards were James Balog, an internationally acclaimed photographer who conducted a time-lapse study of glacier/arctic ice decline; the late Dan Friedlander, who dedicated his life to forging a path to a clean energy future; Mark Reiner, a sustainability expert; and Staci Gilmore, founder and director of Environmental Learning for Kids.