Darth Vader and white knights of oil and gas

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White knights, Darth Vader and evaluating risk in our drilling boom

by Allen Best

White knights of purest motives or black-hearted Darth Vaders? Oil and gas drillers have been cast in both roles in Colorado and elsewhere.

But a panel of four speakers in Denver this week mostly found gray area, which was fitting in that they were speaking at the annual conference of the Society of Risk Analysis. The session had a broad umbrella: “Technological Advances, Risk Tradeoffs and Societal Concerns Associated with Hydraulic Fracking.”

What three of the four said overtly was that drillers had badly wounded themselves at the outset of the boom when stubbornly resisting calls for public disclosure of the constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids.

“That was a spectacular way to foster suspicion,” said Patty Limerick, a historian at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Limerick’s Center of the American West has conducted frequent seminars during the last two years, inviting people with informed perspectives to speak at forums in Boulder, but also two in Greeley, in the heart of the derrick-festooned Wattenberg field, one of the nation’s most active.

By happenstance, a drilling rig was operating within 300 yards (350 feet in Limerick’s telling) of North Ridge High School, the venue for a FrackingSENSE forum in April.

She knew the operator, a reputable company, she said, “but that’s too close” for the comfort of parents.

But Limerick also stung in her appraisal of drilling opponents, many of whom proudly call themselves “fractivists.” She seemed to be saying that they refuse to let facts get in the way of their stories when she said, “Every study has maybe 32 seconds of honeymoon period, and then it is instantly classified as being funded by industry and gets lost instantly as something that doesn’t have to be read.”

Limerick did not cite any particular study, however.

But again, there are problems with all scientific studies in that they rarely reach conclusions without qualifications. The public wants scientists to provide studies that deliver certain and unambiguous results, she said, and the public struggles, especially, to understand probabilities. Activists group, she said, are no different.

“The last thing most activist groups pay attention to, on either side, is margins of error.”

She then showed a slide of a neon-lit Error Bar. Admittance to such a bar, she explained, will not be allowed by a bouncer without the patron’s admission of uncertainty.

What is the proper amount of caution with drilling? Limerick didn’t really say, other than to note, that the precautionary principle is more easily articulated than lived. “If you followed the precautionary principle, you wouldn’t get out of bed,” she said.

While the ingredients of fracking fluids are now public, the industry still hasn’t owned up to the magnitude of changes underway, said Dr. Bernard Goldstein, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Drillers have tried to portray hydraulic fracturing as a long-used technique. The magnitude is much bigger, the dynamics much more complex. “It really did not begin 60 years ago. It began just in the last few years,” he said.

He also objected the characterization of drilling as a brief operation of just a few weeks. In fact, the vertical well is followed by a series of horizontal wells and then the multi-stage fracks. “Its not just a few weeks of noise and truck traffic. It’s six months.”

Bernard Goldstein

Bernard Goldstein

But Goldstein struck a common them in agreeing that we need fossil fuels. Solar, wind and conservation won’t be sufficient in the short term. “The question is how best to do this,” he said in advocating a go-slow approach while evaluating the long-term consequences.

In 2007, after Bill Ritter was elected governor of Colorado, the oil and gas industry wasn’t happy about proposed changes. Operators objected angrily to proposed changes in the state’s regulations that, according to the drillers, were onerous and unnecessary.

Nobody grumbles very loudly about those changes any more, many of them intended to reduce impacts to wildlife. In retrospect, the industry seems like a bratty kid who refused to help clean up the dishes. Many more changes have come: setbacks, testing of water, and now measures to prevent escape of methane from drilling operations.

Colorado’s rules, declared Ritter, are “absolutely the best regulatory scheme that is out there.”

Ritter argued that the risk of drilling for natural gas should be considered in a much bigger context. That broader risk is of climate change, and in that context natural gas should be considered superior to coal. But in public policy, it’s also important to keep in mind the economy, maintaining balance.

“You can’t think this is just about America, or just about Colorado, or just about Lafayette, Colorado. This is bigger,” he said.

But he, too, traced public distrust of fracking to the industry’s initial refusal to disclose the constituents of fracking fluids. He called for drilling accompanies to adopt a “culture of compliance.”

In response to a question, Ritter, who now heads the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, said that he does not believe federal regulations should be adopted to govern oil and gas drilling. State governments are much closer to constituents and can be more nimble, as Illinois proved, adopting regulations recently that borrow heavily from Colorado, Wyoming, and other states. Too, federal regulations would likely be resisted in protracted lawsuits.

Tisha Schuller, who heads the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, put drilling risk into a framework of tradeoffs, “the same tradeoffs that allowed people to fly here on airplanes or to see our children off to school.”

She also put local production in a global context, on in which demand is expected to double to keep up with growth of the world’s population from 7 billion to 10 billion by mid-century. Too, some 1.4 billion do not now have access to energy. Oil and gas, she said, have to be part of the answer. Even a bicycle has petroleum products.

Schuller also talked about the efforts by the industry to adapt in transparency and engagement.

“In many ways, this is a noble industry with a lot of good people. If there was bad guy, why would the bad guy come to the table and want to make meaningful change.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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