Thursday, November 14, 2013

Community Votes on Oil & Gas Fracking Bans

On election day, voters in four Colorado cities – Boulder, Lafayette, Fort Collins, and Broomfield – weighed in on whether or not to allow hydraulic fracturing in their communities.  Measures to ban “fracking” passed easily in the first three while the Broomfield proposition fell short by only a few votes and appears headed for a recount.  As is well known by now, the state regards the regulation of drilling activities as its sole domain and has filed suit over an earlier fracking restriction in Longmont.

It has been well documented that the state and nation as a whole have benefitted immensely from new oil and gas extraction technologies.  The U.S. is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas and, thanks to new production in shale oil and shale gas, is on a path to become a net energy exporter in a few short years – something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.  Moreover, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the electrical power sector are the result of the increase in natural gas fired power generation – a direct result of the decrease in price that has accompanied the increased supply due to fracking (the impact of renewables in achieving this reduction, in spite of receiving a disproportionate amount of press, has been negligible in this regard).  So, in spite of the economic and environmental benefits of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, why did these communities vote to ban them? 

First, there remains a widespread misunderstanding of the environmental concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing.  Fracking occurs thousands of feet below the surface, well below any source of potable water in the country.  And, in spite of some alarmist propaganda, there have been no demonstrable cases of fracking at depth contaminating ground water supplies.  But, with that said, there have been problems, virtually all of which emanate from poor well completions and other surface or near surface drilling contamination.  While these are not an issue with hydraulic fracturing per se (i.e. they could occur with conventional production as well) they are legitimate concerns.  To some extent, the industry is its own worst enemy, whether it is its own failure to adequately take preventive measures against spills or specious claims about the need for trade secret protection for the constituents of frac fluids.

There are some 50,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado with approximately 2,000 new wells drilled each year.  A check of the COGCC incident reporting database reveals that thus far in 2013, there were just over 100 spills that impacted surface or ground water, with about a quarter of those a result of the September floods.  Most others appear not related to drilling and completion activity but resulted from mechanical failures in collection and distribution systems.  Even though that incident rate is only a few percent, you would probably not get on an airplane if the airline industry’s incident rate was that high.  So, perhaps there is something to learn from the exemplary safety record of the airline industry and the transparency afforded by the Airline Safety Reporting System (ASRS) which allows everyone to share and learn from critical incidents that are voluntarily reported by pilots.  FYI, the same has been suggested for the medical community as well.

It is a fair question to ask why local communities should not have the same right to regulate this type of industrial activity within their borders as they do in regulating building permits, construction, transmission lines, or other industrial activities?  But, perhaps they should consider establishing systems to evaluate drilling activity on a well by well basis rather than enact outright bans.  It strikes me that the referenda on hydraulic fracturing are as much a statement on the state’s oversight of drilling as on concerns with fracking itself.  In other words, do the residents of these communities trust the state and its cognizant regulatory authority, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), to protect their interests?  The answer, it seems, may be no. 

I have written in the past about the inconsistency in energy development regulation in Colorado noting that, while the state asserts primacy in the regulation of oil and gas drilling, it remains strangely disinterested in permitting electric generating facilities, be they renewable energy related or otherwise.  For instance, I would venture to say that most citizens are entirely unaware that neither the Public Utilities Commission nor the Colorado Energy Office requires even the most minimal registration of, or could provide data on, all of the electrical generating facilities in the state, the principal exception being the Department of Public Health and Environment which issues air quality permits for them.  Drillers, at least, must file a permit application for each well they seek to drill. 

The bottom line is that I would be no more in favor of having a drilling rig 500 feet from my back door than I am having a 400-foot wind turbine there.  And, before critics decry this as NIMBYism at its worst, consider that both drilling and renewable energy facilities represent industrial development that is not wholly compatible with residential neighborhoods.  The important point is not that these types of energy development do not belong anywhere, but rather that they do not belong everywhere.  And, until the supply of energy (be it liquid fuels or electricity) becomes so critically short, there is no reason to find that no land – be it residential or wilderness – should not be off limits.

Yes, the state and the oil and gas industry need to get their acts together and do a better job of understanding and responding to the legitimate concerns of the public.  Perhaps a reporting system analogous to the ASRS mentioned above would help.  Local communities that seek to ban hydraulic fracturing entirely, on the other hand, need to consider more flexible regulatory schemas that can be applied with more precision than a sledge hammer.  The nation, the economy, and the environment have benefitted from unconventional oil and gas development and we need to figure out how to keep this train rolling.