Oil, natural gas extraction is clean, says Gov

Special to The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper called negative reports concerning dangers associated with hydraulic fracturing “hyperbole,” arguing that there is no scientific fact to indicate that the oil and natural gas extraction process contaminates groundwater in Colorado.

The Democratic governor made his comments Aug. 2 during a keynote address at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual Energy Epicenter Conference held at the Colorado Convention Center. Hickenlooper himself is an alum of the industry, having worked as a geologist in the 1980s before he ventured into the beer crafting brewing business and later politics. The governor said he would like to see new rules in Colorado that would require the oil and gas industry to disclose ingredients used in the hydraulic fracturing process. But Hickenlooper is not encouraging the disclosure because he thinks the so-called fracking process is dangerous — he believes the public will back off their concerns when they see that the ingredients used in the process, and the process itself, is nothing to worry about in terms of contaminating groundwater.

“Everyone in this room understands that hydraulic fracturing doesn’t connect to groundwater, and we can’t find any chemicals in Colorado… It’s almost inconceivable that we would ever contaminate groundwater through a fracking process, and yet there are reports, not just the New York Times, that have created the impression that this happens and that this is something we should be fearful of,” said Gov. Hickenlooper. “The best way to fight back on that kind of misinformation is to be transparent. To really step out and say this isn’t something that happens, and we’re so confident that this is not going to happen that we’re going to measure before drilling and then after drilling, and we’ll monitor and just clearly demonstrate beyond any possible doubt that this doesn’t happen.”

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a process that fractures rock by employing the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase the extraction rates in recovering oil and natural gas. The industry has faced harsh criticism over the process, with widespread media reports and documentaries suggesting that the process is contaminating groundwater and putting citizens at risk. Some reports of faucets igniting on fire as a result of drilling activities associated with fracking in Weld and Garfield counties in Colorado have surfaced, and then received national attention after filmmaker Josh Fox released his Academy Award-nominated documentary “Gasland.” The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission later debunked reports of the faucets lighting on fire as a result of fracking, instead finding that naturally occurring methane and fermenting organic matter was the cause of the combustibility. Still, the negative reports have further tarnished an already defensive oil and gas industry.

On Tuesday, the industry in Colorado announced plans for a voluntary groundwater quality sampling program with the aim of easing concerns associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Participants will voluntarily collect groundwater samples before and after drilling, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which will operate a central database for the public to review, will maintain the data. An annual report will be prepared for the public as well. A third party will conduct the actual testing in an effort to assure accuracy and to minimize what Gov. Hickenlooper calls “conspiracy theories.”

“We will go to great lengths to have a fair assessment,” the governor said following his keynote address on Tuesday. “There are all these people that will move toward a conspiracy theory that somehow we control this water monitoring, or we’re somehow being disingenuous. All I can say is that (in) my whole life, no one to my knowledge have I ever deceived or tricked or not been completely honest and upfront.”

The industry itself developed and is encouraging the voluntary program, noting that there is already a 90 percent participation rate.

“Our goal is to have every operator in Colorado participate,” Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and chief executive of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement. “With further outreach and the unanimous support of our board, we are confident that operators will see the value in participating in COGA’s program.”

“The positive response by our members acknowledges how important it is that we demonstrate that we are protecting the quality of Colorado’s groundwater,” she continued. “COGA and our industry partners are committed to demonstrating to our landowners and communities that they can have confidence in our operations and the quality of our state’s groundwater.”

Following Gov. Hickenlooper’s remarks, Schuller said that the industry is willing to work with the governor on hydraulic fracturing disclosure requirements, noting that there is already a Web site, FracFocus.org, where the industry is voluntarily disclosing fracture additives on a well-by-well basis around Colorado.
“The entire theme of our conference is ‘mission possible,’ which is about engaging with our communities in innovative and transparent ways, and so we are embracing the need to work in more proactive and collaborative ways with regulators, landowners and communities,” said Schuller, referring to the Energy Epicenter Conference that runs through Thursday.

If Colorado were to establish fracking disclosure rules it would become one of a handful of states enacting such laws. Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana and Arkansas already have fracking disclosure rules on the books, and at least four other states are drafting proposals.

Environmentalists reacted positively to the announcement of the water testing program and to gov. Hickenlooper’s desire to have fracking disclosure rules, but they say such actions are only a first step. Those critical of the oil and gas industry believe the final step is moving away from using “toxic chemicals” and requiring the entire industry to conduct such water quality testing, not on a voluntary basis, but as a mandate.

Charlie Montgomery, an energy organizer with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said his organization and the governor have a “slightly different perspective” when it comes to controversies surrounding hydraulic fracturing. Montgomery believes the fracking process can be harmful to groundwater supplies, especially if something goes wrong.

“If everything goes according to plan on a drilling project, [Hickenlooper’s] right, it’s going to be difficult for contamination to occur, but accidents happen…” said Montgomery. “Those things might be rare, but remember, once contamination does occur because of some accident, it’s very, very difficult, if not impossible, to clean that water source up.”

Environmentalists say they haven’t quite made their minds up yet on Gov. Hickenlooper, hesitant to applaud him following eight appointments he made recently to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Gov. Hickenlooper has big shoes to fill, considering that former Gov. Bill Ritter was considered to be one the greatest of friends to the state’s environmental community. Following the announcement of the appointments last week, the Colorado Environmental Coalition said, “The jury is still very much out as to whether this set of appointments meets that important standard [of striking the right balance] or whether instead the balance has shifted away from protecting Colorado’s air, water, wildlife and communities from the impacts of drilling.”

The appointments include: Fort Lupton Mayor Tommy E. Holton, John H. Benton, vice president of the Rockies Division of Rex Energy Corp. in Denver, W. Perry Pearce, manager of state government affairs for ConocoPhillips/Burlington Resources, Andrew Lawrence Spielman, chairman of Colorado’s Regional Air Quality Council, Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources and Dr. Chris Urbina, executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment. Hickenlooper also reappointed Thomas L. Compton, owner and manager of Compton Cattle Co., and Richard D. Alward, a principal ecologist and environmental scientist at Aridlands Natural Resource Consulting in Grand Junction.

Montgomery said environmental groups are in a wait and see mode when it comes to the governor’s commitment to environmental issues and the makeup of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“It’s a little hard to tell right now,” said Montgomery. “Some of the appointees are very experienced, they’re people working in the industry, but some of them may not have those kinds of years of experience. It’s not really clear what they’re thinking and what their positions are, but we’re totally looking forward to working with them.”