Oil and gas boom fuels fracking concerns

Mar 15, 2013

Colorado and New York are the latest battlegrounds where “hydraulic fracturing” is turning into a contentious issue as the need for increased energy independence locks horns with environmental concerns.

The nation’s livestock industry can find itself at odds with the U.S. oil and gas industry with concerns about potential groundwater contamination caused by such “fracking,” which involves injecting highly pressurized fluids into subterranean shale formations to create new veins or fractures, improving recovery of underground oil and gas.

The fluid injected into the rock typically is a slurry of water, sand, gels, foams, chemical additives and gases, including nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen. Industry officials say fracturing liquids consist 90 percent of water, 9.5 percent of sand and 0.5 percent of chemicals.

A typical fracking treatment uses between three and 12 chemical additives, including acids, salt, friction reducers, ethylene glycol, methanol, isopropyl alcohol, carbonates and disinfectants.

There are more than 50,000 wells in Colorado, and they are increasing by about 2,500 a year.

Fracking boiled over as an issue March 5 in Fort Collins, CO, where the city council banned fracking within city limits in defiance of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and other state officials who say local governments are out of line trying to regulate the oil and gas industry.

Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat counters that the city had to take the initiative because the state has failed to protect citizens.

Fort Collins’ ban was approved in response to rising public concerns about increasing oil and gas operations along Colorado’s heavily populated Front Range. It amends city code to prohibit oil and gas operations, hydraulic fracturing and some waste storage within city limits.

The Denver Post reports several other Colorado cities and counties have drafted or declared moratoriums on drilling while they craft rules to address oil and gas operations conducted increasingly close to communities.

Fracking opponents in tiny Lafayette petitioned the city council with nearly 1,000 signatures calling for an emergency moratorium, with plans to place a ban on the November ballot. In 1986, the Colorado Supreme Court over turned an oil and gas drilling ban in Greeley, ruling the owners of subsurface mineral rights have the right to extract those minerals.

In 2012, Suthers sued Longmont after its leaders imposed regulations on intown oil and gas explorations. Longmont voters then responded by passing a ban, which prompted state officials to say they would support a second lawsuit filed against the city by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), an oil and gas association and a drilling company.

The governor’s spokesman said such bans as those imposed by Fort Collins violate state law. Legislators granted COGCC exclusive authority over industry operations, not cities or countries, The Post reported. Suthers’ office sent letters to Arapahoe, Elbert and El Paso counties asking authorities there to work with the commission to address local concerns.

Hickenlooper said he’s willing to consider a deal in which the state would split the cost of compensating oil and gas companies for their potential losses with towns that ban fracking. The governor has argued against bans because the companies are then forced to deal with patchwork regulations that fluctuate at different locations throughout Colorado.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently delayed fracking regulations, potentially pushing a moratorium in effect since 2008 into 2014, drawing sharp criticism.

“After two years of claiming that he would let science be the determinant, he appears now to be dithering under pressure from environmental extremists who rely on false claims and junk science to stop progress,” New York State Petroleum Council Executive Director Karen Moreau said.

“It’s time for a decision. It’s time for safe natural gas development. … New Yorkers want the governor to put politics aside when making decisions that are best for the state.”

Following Cuomo’s delay, the New York State Assembly voted to extend the moratorium to 2015 and require more environmental drilling studies.

Less than a week after that vote, the state health commissioner said he plans to give his recommendation on whether New York should approve fracking in the coming weeks. The New York Times released a leaked state health department study that said fracking can be safely done in the state by using the regulatory system developed over several years.

The bill must pass the state Senate, where a Democratic majority might be able to enact it and send it to Cuomo. However, a power-sharing agreement between Senate Republicans and Democrats could complicate the bill’s passage, Reuters reported.

A 2011 study by the Manhattan Institute found that ending the fracking moratorium would spur more than $11.4 billion economic growth, and see up to 18,000 jobs. Pennsylvania has seen an economic boom because of fracking. However, 28 beef cattle pastured in Pennsylvania were quarantined more than a year ago after wastewater from a nearby gas well leaked.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said the toxic water included chloride, magnesium, potassium and strontium, contaminating the cows’ meat. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent