Can the oil and gas industry fix its public image in Colorado?

 

Last week, I drove over the mountains from High Country News HQ in Paonia, Colo., to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, an annual confab for the oil and gas industry – complete with a balloon drop wherein suited attendees throw elbows as they jockey for prizes -- hosted by its powerful state trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. HCN doesn’t usually attend industry conferences, loaded as they often are with technical information more valuable to CEOs than reporters. But this one seemed different: COGA President Tisha Conoly Schuller, an environmentally-savvy Stanford-educated liberal, had brought several surprising speakers, including the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, who’s best known for pushing an Anthropocene-inspired pragmatism in the environmental movement.

Early Wednesday morning, before a slightly groggy, still-trickling-in-with-lattes crowd, Kareiva gave a compelling speech on the importance of factoring peoples’ needs into conservation efforts to ensure they’re relevant and effective, and working alongside corporations to minimize the environmental impacts of inevitable industrial development. Afterward, Schuller sat down on stage in an armchair across from the controversial scientist. “One of the things we struggle with is spending a lot of time reacting to … positions we view as extreme, such as banning (hydraulic fracturing),” she began. She was referring to public concern over the possible health impacts of the practice, which involves firing a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a well bore to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons, and the intense local battles it has inspired over the industry’s expansion on the Front Range. “We want to have a dialog that moves to the middle. But the reality is that the press and the meetings are driven by people who have an extreme agenda. What recommendation do you have for us on how we address and interact with that reality?”

Activists rally for the Colorado anti-fracking group, Erie Rising.

“Drama (and) conflict sell. But so does vision,” Kareiva replied. “Be visionary.”

What does that mean for an industry that has stuggled to define itself as a positive force (it is, after all, responsible for a significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as more power plants switch from coal to natural gas), even as fracktivists paint it as a plague on clean water and air, and a scourge on powerless communities? This soul-searching was a major conference theme, carried through several sessions by academics, state officials and industry CEOs alike, many of them emphasizing compassion, empathy and open, thoughtful engagement with concerned communities as ways forward through increasing polarization.

But when I asked various attendees how the industry might come to the middle itself, many felt that the necessary work was mostly a matter of reassuring concerned members of the public that fracking truly is safe, that oil and gas employees also care about the environment and the safety of their own families, and that hydrocarbons are foundational to society and the basic function of all our lives, from the polypro we wear camping to the gasoline we use to drive our kids to soccer practice. But with the exception of the fracking question, who doesn’t already know those things on some level? And isn’t presuming to educate condescending? To be really effective, David Ropiek, a former television journalist who now consults on human risk perception and risk communication, suggested in an afternoon presentation, companies must “give up on the idea that just how you communicate to people with words and messages and PR is enough. People take your measure a whole lot more by what you do.”

Which is why my ears perked when I heard an executive from Noble Energy speak about a $500,000 groundwater monitoring effort in Weld County. The company, one of the largest operators in northeastern Colorado’s Denver-Julesberg Basin, is participating under the auspices of Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Energy Consortium.

The demonstration project would complement new state rules -- which call for detailed analysis of groundwater samples taken before and after drilling -- with realtime, continuous monitoring of the freshwater aquifer 200 to 300 feet below 10 of Noble’s multi-well pads. The probes won’t test for a suite of specific contaminants, which would be too expensive for broad application and limit the number researchers could screen for, explains Ken Carlson, a CSU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Instead, they will retrieve data on  aspects of the water’s basic chemistry such as conductivity that, were they to change, could signal possible contamination and would trigger a deeper analysis.

Once the monitoring wells are drilled, the data would be transmitted to a CSU server and posted to a website accessible to the public, which researchers hope to have live in December. While 10 wells aren’t enough to produce statistically significant results, once the method is proven, it could be scaled up to provide systemic monitoring that researchers hope will help settle the debate over what is (or isn’t) happening underground. “We’re trying to stay away from the bigger picture of whether shale gas is the right thing to do,” Carlson says. “This (development) is happening. Without endorsing it or saying it’s bad, let’s see if we can make it better as it’s going on.”

Noble has a seat on the steering committee overseeing the project – which includes former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, the environmental group Western Resource Advocates and the state Department of Natural Resources among others – and kicked in $50,000 of the study’s cost, but it cannot influence results or whether they are published or not.

What’s in it for Noble? In two words, public trust,” says Manager of Government Relations Chad Calvert. “There are a lot of claims that fracking for oil and gas affects groundwater. Our engineers don’t feel that way, but the public does. This is about trying to show people that these operations can be done safely.” And if it shows the opposite? “Then we need to fix it,” Calvert says. “We need to understand it and mitigate it. It’s a learning opportunity too.”

Winning that broader public trust is going to be a hard battle, though, no matter how forward-thinking, proactive and responsible any given company is. “Forgive me oil and gas industry, but a lot of people think (you’re) not all that trustworthy,” Ropiek pointed out in his conference presentation. “And by the way, you could be 99 percent trustworthy in this room, but if one of you screws it up, that taints you all. I’ve talked to lots of you today and you’ve said, ‘We’re heavily regulated.’ Well that’s awesome, unless people don’t trust the regulator.”

So it doesn’t much help that, a few days before the conference, the L.A. Times reported on a leaked PowerPoint presentation that suggested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had abandoned an inquiry into whether water wells in Dimock, Penn., had been contaminated by natural gas development, despite staffers’ conclusions, “based on data collected over 4 1/2 years, … that ‘methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality.’ (And) that ‘methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and other gas well work.’ " Even so, an EPA spokeswoman told the newspaper, "The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action."

Earlier this year, the agency backed off a similar study – this one much more strongly linking contamination of water in Pavillion, Wyo., to oil and gas development. Though the agency said it stands by its results, it balked before peer review could test its conclusions, handing the assessment over to Wyoming after intense pressure from the industry and the state. In yet another instance, the EPA “abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Tex., was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents' faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding,” Abrahm Lustgarten reported for Propublica and HCN in July: “Environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.”

In that context, what indeed does it mean for the industry to be visionary? Perhaps it’s as simple as letting go of the constant political wrangling and allowing these questions to be explored and resolved in a public, highly visible way by researchers without their own axe to grind, and then simply addressing the results, instead of denying them. How else will the general public understand what tradeoffs are and aren’t involved in extracting this fuel, and make informed decisions to avoid those that cut the deepest?

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor. Image courtesy Flickr user Erie Rising.

Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 13, 2013 02:21 PM
The gas industry wishes us to accept the premise that fracking is a given, and thus the only open question is the extent (or non-extent) of regulation. Yet a growing number of people do not accept that industry framing, and refuse to surrender to fracking as an inevitable feature of life.

Despite industry efforts to stifle investigation and disclosure, people are waking up to the reality that fracking is inherently toxic; that migration and contamination does occur; that the practice is an indefensible waste of water; that the industrialization is incompatible with many other local economic uses; and that the notion of injecting billions of gallons of toxic water deep underground and hoping for the best is patently insane.

In addition, fracked gas's status as "clean" and climate-friendly "transition" fuel is being debunked even as I write. It is not a bridge fuel; it is a diversion and delay from our truly clean, efficient, and renewable future.

I am sure that many members and employees of the industry are patriotic Americans that love their families. The industry collectively; however, has played host to a high level of pathological behavior.

Implicit in industry talking points is the fact that industry does not seem to believe in the power of American innovation and entrepreneurialism, at least with respect to our ability to find ways to power ourselves without burning fossil fuels and devastating the environment.

So, no, we do not have to accept that fracking is an immovable fact of life. Although the industry has managed to connive and bribe itself into a subsidized, exempted, entitled existence thus far. Had we had an open, informed, and accountable public debate beforehand, fracking would never even had been begun.
Rick Casey
Rick Casey Subscriber
Aug 13, 2013 10:27 PM
I totally agree with the above comments by Mr. McMichael. I teach environmental economics at Front Range Community College in Ft Collins, and am deeply engaged in the political struggle to ban fracking through a Community Rights Act in Lafayette (see eastbocounited.org; I maintain the website.)

If we allow the oil and gas industry write our future, we are guaranteeing a catastrophic future; their only plan is to tell us to keep on driving. We do so at our peril.

We are wasting time...we must all become actively engaged in creating the shift away from fossil fuels and towards alternative energy as the basis for the economy. This recent "energy summit" hosted by COGA amounts to putting lipstick on a pig, and is to simply a more refined and sophisticated PR attempt. Big whoop....

I highly recommend Richard Heinberg's new book: "Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future" by the energy expert Richard Heinberg. (see his webpage about it at http://richardheinberg.com/snake-oil) It is an authoritative and highly convincing examination, replete with overwhelming scientific data to back it up, of how shallow, greedy and shortsighted this fracking boom is.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Aug 14, 2013 12:08 PM
Hi Rick and Michael -- if either of you know of credible analyses of what it would take to switch completely off of fossil fuels, including in the transportation sector, please let me know. Would we power cars/trucks/planes entirely with biofuels? And if so, made from what, and what kind of land commitment would that require, if any? Would the transportation sector somehow be converted to all electric? What would it take to make that switch in the nation's entire transportation fleet? And the electricity production, in turn, would that somehow switch to all renewables (which currently does require balancing power, often natural gas, to be grid ready, at least at a utility scale)? I'm interested in the mechanisms people envision to get to the future you describe, and what tradeoffs they involve as well. Good fodder for stories.

Thanks,
Sarah Gilman, HCN associate editor
Rick Casey
Rick Casey Subscriber
Aug 14, 2013 12:43 PM
Sarah: If I discover such, I'll let you know...this macroeconomic scale of research is, I believe, just beginning. In the meantime, I'm keeping my eye on this Stanford research center: http://gcep.stanford.edu/

Best,
Rick Casey
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 01:35 PM
Hi Sarah, some of that is not yet known or knowable; we won't know until we get serious about researching and experimenting and implementing. (As Rick said, some of that research is just beginning). There are indeed many credible estimates and models of course. However, no one asked the oil industry to model what it would take to switch off of wood and coal, or demanded that the gas industry prove it was preferable to coal and viable as a basis for a national energy policy, before wells were fracked by the thousands: they just (held a secret meeting with Dick Cheney and then) started drilling wells and getting subsidies; and are in reality making it up as they go along. Deciding now, for example, that they need massive pipeline systems and port conversions for export.

If we redirected the tens of billions in subsidies that currently go to fossil fuels towards new resources - and we made entering the next era a priority, rather than a dream always across the horizon - we'd soon learn the answers to those questions. We'd also experience real climate gases reductions along the way, as well as enjoy an economic revitalization due to new technologies, new jobs, and refreshed capital flows.

Also, do not underestimate the power of reducing what we consume through efficiency, conservation, and rethinking infrastructure and habits. Our current system is massively wasteful, much of the energy we consume - as much as half - drifts off into space without being transformed into an end use, literally. The most powerful form of renewable energy is that which is never consumed due to decreased demand. Unfortunately, there is a limited constituency for using less of anything in our current economic paradigm.

Oil & gas, even coal, will be part of the equation and with us for a long time. So, the goal ought to be moving them to the background as soon as possible. That will not happen with any sense of focus or urgency as long as the next new energy-intensive, highly-toxic, scorched-earth fossil fuel extraction methodology keeps sucking all the oxygen (and government subsidies) out of the policy, capital, and research pools.

I'll what I can dig up, but have limited time at the moment.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Aug 14, 2013 02:10 PM
Thanks, both of you, for the thoughtful response. Another outfit to watch, which is analyzing the sustainability and tradeoffs of gas development, is this: http://www.airwatergas.org/

On one point, Malcolm--The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing predates the Bush-Cheney years. See this great column Randy Udall wrote for us a while back: http://www.hcn.org/wotr/a-new-mantra-for-the-oil-patch. Many of the federal leases at the center of the boom on public land in the early 2000s were let under the Clinton administration.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 02:49 PM
Sarah, indeed fracking has been a known technology for decades, and was certainly in use for a while before it got on the public's radar. Randy's data does not differentiate between conventional and fracked wells, a distinction which would be helpful but not readily attainable that I can determine. (PS, your link did not work).

Leases, by the way, are cheap. Firms have been sitting on leases for generations, at least so it seems, waiting for the right price/technology opportunity. The federal government spent much of the late 1970's and 1980's underwriting research into the methods now being used (horizontal drilling, fracking, etc). We hear about Mitchel, but we don't hear about the tax breaks, demonstration leases, government subsidies, etc.

Here's a report that gives total gas well counts, you can see it rise in 2000 and go parabolic in 2003. (2005 is the infamous date that the Bush administration exempted fracking from clean air and water laws). http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/e_ertwg_xwc0_nus_cA.htm

Or see the second chart here: http://www.pressreleasepoin[…]industry-reportsresearchcom

The main driver of timing being (I believe) the rise in oil prices, which stimulated profitability of unconventional gas production.

See pp 35 for an estimate of the growth and timing of the fracking industry: http://www.spe.org/[…]/10Hydraulic.pdf

Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 03:10 PM
You might find the timeline and exhibit 3 interesting: http://www.marketminder.com/[…]/11aa6649-52e4-45ae-bdb9-8a726af764b1

By the way, I am citing stuff here I find on the web that appears at least reasonably serious. Aside from the EIA's stuff, I in no way have vetted or endorse its accuracy. Actually not the EIA either [joking][sort of]

Nevertheless, collectively they paint a consistent picture of a long-simmering industry that took off starting around 2003 and went parabolic in 2005.

Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Aug 14, 2013 03:48 PM
Malcolm-- Hmm. The link is correct. Try this: http://www.hcn.org/wotr/a-new-mantra-for-the-oil-patch . I included the column because of its mention of Jonah Field, which wouldn't have been developed without fracking. It's now one of the most densely drilled places on Earth. I guess all I'm saying here (and what you also appear to be saying) is that there's a lot more feeding the rush on unconventional hydrocarbon reserves than the so-called Halliburton loophole, which is actually a rather limited exemption from part of the Safe Drinking Water Act: http://www.nytimes.com/gwir[…]e-44383.html?pagewanted=all
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 04:16 PM
Sarah, I think your link includes the period at the end. In any case, it didn't work for me, it lead to a "dead link" page (I tried three times). It's okay, I was able to find the article and read it via Google anyway.

Agreed that none of this would be happening without fracking or directional drilling. Nat gas would have dried up, and we'd be that much closer to renewables. But the technologies did not blossom in a vacuum.

I think of the Haliburton loophole as more of an preferential entitlement and indirect subsidy, than a primary driver. Nevertheless, it is a very real benefit to industry economically, also very shameless, and very indefensible. The sort of unnecessary piling-on for cronies for which the Dubya administration had a particular affinity, but by no means monopoly.

But yes, indeed the main drivers of activity are the price of crude oil and the price of natural gas. (and not over-regulation, by the way; that annoying incessant red herring whined about by industry). Also with a little help from a lot of hot money provided by the Federal Reserve.

Let's not underestimate the impact of Presidential prioritization. The Bush administration made it clear that they intended to pursue a drill-baby-drill policy (although the term was not really coined yet), and that is exactly what they did, and it is exactly what we got. This is why I am so disappointed with the Obama administration's failure to make renewables/efficiency the meaningful priority of its tenure - it makes a difference in what happens.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 04:36 PM
Re the NYT article. I agree, as the article states, the impacts are indeed different.

"Drilling" brings industrialization, air/noise/light pollution, methane escape, surface disturbance, casing failures, economic and social upheaval, surface leaks, surface/ground water contamination, well water contamination, flamable tap water, vehicle accidents, pipelines, pipeline leaks, compressor stations, road building, road wear, strains on social and police/fire services, landowner conflicts, property value declines, and sub-surface gas migration.

The "fracking" phase of drilling brings (in addition to the "drilling" impacts) massive clean water contamination, creates more toxic/radioactive/contaminated produced and flowback water, necessitates additional heavy truck traffic, creates need for more waste water treatment including evaporation and deep re-injection, creates underground fissures with unknown long-term consequences, creates possible "lubrication" of underground layers, and above all, means pursuing the insane practice of injecting billions of gallons of toxic water deep underground with nothing more than hope that it doesn't create problems down the road.

Fracking is indeed a sub-set of drilling, but for all intents and purposes, drilling would not happen without fracking.

The article is correct about the word parsing games played by industry PR hacks. Some fracking opponents do indeed focus on the most salacious aspect of the drilling process. But it is, by any objective measure, a significant escalation of the negative practices and impact associated with conventional drilling.

But I am not sure what you mean by "limited" exemption. It is not clear to me why any exemption is warranted.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 04:44 PM
PS. Sorry for the litany of posts. I have a self-employed desk job, and take little breaks by writing a bit. Please know also that although I seem to have a pretty blunt tone, I am actually a nice, happy guy.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Aug 14, 2013 08:41 PM
Speaking of Stanford... "The world can be powered by alternative energy in 20-40 years, Stanford researcher says" http://scienceblog.com/[…]/
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Aug 16, 2013 01:18 PM
Thanks for the link, Malcolm! I'll take a look. And no worries about the comments--we are always interested in added context and information.
Kevin Matthews
Kevin Matthews
Aug 20, 2013 01:29 PM
This industry-speaking point is highly disputed, as pointed out in the nearby post in this same blog on methane emissions during natural gas production and distribution:

"it is, after all, responsible for a significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as more power plants switch from coal to natural gas."

The "after all" in particular seems rather misplaced, for a technical point that many scientists think is false.

What would be visionary for the oil & gas industry?

1) Stop funding climate disinformation.

2) Make plans to wind down the industry while 60% to 80% of known reserves remain untapped.

3) Execute those plans in time to save the biosphere as we know it.

Fast, in other words.
David Leidy
David Leidy
Aug 20, 2013 08:46 PM
it is hard to believe there is any discussion of the value of fracking. it is only what we have been feed by those that have the most money: the oil industry, the news media and our government representatives. sorry that this is what is boils down to and only wish what you have discussed here, which is all valid and worthwhile could bring about the needed change but alas it misses the true problem.
Joanne Corey
Joanne Corey
Aug 21, 2013 08:23 AM
Thanks for this post and comments. I am involved in the struggle to keep the current HVHF moratorium in New York in place. A part of that is promoting a transition to renewable energy for all needs, including transportation. A New York specific plan was written by Mark Jacobson (Stanford), Mark Delucchi (U Cal-Davis), Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea (Cornell) and several additional experts: http://www.stanford.edu/[…]/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf
They chose to transition without a fracked methane "bridge" and also without reliance on biofuels, using just wind, water, sun, and limited geothermal, in their plan for NY. Obviously, a Colorado plan would look different - offshore wind is definitely off the table for you - but the report is extensively referenced and includes economic issues in its analysis. Dr. Jacobson and Dr. Delucchi are interested in developing similar plans for other states. Perhaps there are people in universities in Colorado who would like to look into partnering with them to write a plan specific to your needs.
Dennis Willis
Dennis Willis Subscriber
Aug 21, 2013 08:33 PM
The industry worrying about their "image" is like me worrying if the jeans makes my fat ass look fat. It is what they DO that is the problem. It is just too easy to find horror shows when you tour the oil and gas patch. Seeing poor workmanship on a regular basis, there is no credibility when they claim their fracking operations are always done to perfection. I watch them cover up a crude oil spill with a dump truck load of dirt and I do not believe them when they tell me they do good work and are environmentally sensitive. They lie!
Jerry Williams
Jerry Williams Subscriber
Aug 22, 2013 03:35 PM
I read Sarah's initial request for studies about how this tranfromation from a hydrocarbon based economoy to one of renewable energy issuppsed to take place, and my I add without any catastophic impact on the economy. I was anticipating with high hopes that one of the responces would be of some help. However, I was dissappointed in all responses.
Adell K Heneghan
Adell K Heneghan
Aug 23, 2013 07:50 AM
I have read with interest the many comments and misunderstanding about the oil and gas industry. I agree there are companies that do not operate in the most outstanding manner and simply pillage the resources for personal gain...much like the men and women who settled the west and followed logging, buffalo hunting, mining, trapping, and the list goes on; those same people we now herald as "brave settlers" or romantically credit with untold heroism. Don't misunderstand, I am an advocate of renewable energy and would love to see that become a true portion of the energy formula. However, petroleum products are used in more than powering cars and trucks, or generating electricity. Petroleum products are the basis for most plastics, including joint replacements, artifical heart, the computers we all take for granted, and the ever important cellular phones. Biofuel is often the rally for "fuel", which I firmly believe could be part of the solution, however the biological makeup for such fuels is generally farmed and that requires some kind of fuel itself, fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides for larger commercial operations - and lest be honest lots and lots of water. Can it be done organically? Likely the answer is yes, but not likely on a large enough commercial basis. If the farm is to become the fuel producer where will the food be produced? Solar seems so reasonable, yet the environmental impacts from solar cell and battery manufacturing are numersous (see the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition environmental score card for manufacturers - http://cleantechnica.com/[…]/). Perhaps those who cry to ban drilling and production should recognize they are also calling for a ban on biomedical replacement research, prescription medicines, disifectants in medical centers, agricultural operations which keep food prices affordable, detergants, cosmetics, and most modern clothing and footware. So, it often seems the push for renewables is actually a rally cry against "big oil" and an undertone claim that "big oil" is blocking renewable development for profit gain. Yet, one of the largest global solar manufacturers today is British Petroleum (BP). Other companies, like Chevron, Exxon, Shell and Mobil, have sizable subsidiaries producing solar equipment. Do we need a better energy picture? Yes. Is the answer to ban drilling and hydraulic fracturing and focus on biofuels, wind and solar? I don't believe biofuels, wind, and solar can exist without petroleum. They are not mutually exclusive.