Realism often missing when energy development involved

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.” — Garrison Keillor

Gov. John Hickenlooper looked reality in the eye a couple of times last week, once up in Rifle and the other time during his Club 20 keynote here in Grand Junction. Next, we’ll likely see some denial from those who see things differently regarding the twin issues of hydraulic fracturing and Colorado’s much-maligned rules for oil and gas development.

Speaking at Club 20’s luncheon on Saturday, Hickenlooper argued it’s possible to be both pro-environment and pro-business. He promised to work with businesses to reduce red tape, citing delays in permitting processes as an example, while maintaining accountability.

Nowhere has that argument played out in a more prolonged fashion than in discussions about appropriate regulations and practices for an industry that provides much of the necessary energy that also helps make life more comfortable and productive.

In Glenwood Springs last Thursday, Hickenlooper weighed in on hydraulic fracturing, the process that makes production possible in areas like northwestern Colorado and many locations where new oil and natural gas plays compete with Colorado’s resources. Fracking generates controversy largely because of industry insistence, at least in our state, that the chemicals making up a small portion of what’s injected underground remain a closely-guarded secret.

You’d think continuing public complaints, renewed efforts in Congress to regulate hydraulic fracturing, and a concurrent EPA study of fracking practices would offer some incentives for meaningful industry disclosure of those chemicals. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they won’t reveal those,” the governor said while defending the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Neither did former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and regulators in that state when, last September, they began requiring companies to disclose, prior to drilling, detailed lists of all chemicals they might use at an individual well and, after drilling is completed, what was actually used.

“I haven’t heard of anyone having problems,” said the vice-president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming a month later.

Hickenlooper also pledged last week not to roll back oil and gas regulations approved during the previous administration, something our own state Rep. Ray Scott might consider. Scott is among those who still claim it’s the rules — not market forces like a 46 percent drop in prices in six months and new, lower-cost production closer to big cities — that are responsible for the loss of local energy jobs. That argument defies logic, given the fact that numbers of new permits remain high in Colorado and new wells drilled in any given year total only a fraction of the number of new permits issued.

To its credit, and despite implausible claims by Scott and others, the industry is moving forward on many fronts. Most producers have figured out the issues involved in complying with the new rules and the high volume of new permits supports that.

The industry argues that any underground discharges are caused by infrequent well-casing issues, not fracking processes. So Chevron, unlike most producers, completely encloses the entire length of its gas wells with cement, top to bottom.

Public confidence would likely increase if others would follow suit rather than follow the traditional practice of encasing only the very top and the bottom of wells, leaving a gap of hundreds or sometimes thousands of feet.

Competitors might not like the additional costs involved. But an industry that once fiercely opposed directional drilling because of higher costs now touts that practice and the ability to drill multiple wells from a single pad as an example of efficiency and responsibility. That same evolution could occur with top-to-bottom casing.

Despite efforts to paint the picture differently, these arguments are not about “if” energy production should take place. Of course it should, particularly if we want to continue celebrating and taking advantage of advancements such as the opening of filling stations dispensing compressed natural gas that’ll initially fuel fleet vehicles and transit buses but might eventually allow us to use that cleaner, locally produced fuel in our personal vehicles.

It’s about “how” we can reap those benefits, maintain our lifestyles, keep creating good jobs and do that in a manner that preserves and protects both public confidence in the industry and its regulators. And also preserves, as Hickenlooper noted, other attributes that contribute to local economies and our way of life.

Jim Spehar has worked on and written about energy issues for nearly 20 years.  Your comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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