Right before I departed on my spring time tour of rural Nebraska and Colorado, I attended FrackingSense’s “Atmospheric Perspective on Oil & Gas Operations” from CU’s Jana Milford, a professor with expertise in airborne pollutants, and NOAA’s Gabrielle Petron, who is busily measuring field levels of airborne pollutants in oil & gas fields. It was very hard to get either of them to use the word fracking. They just do not accept it as scientifically relevant to the pollution issue.
It reminds me frankly of listening to someone who is an expert on firearms pointing out why “assault weapons” is an irrelevant term in gun violence.
For two years while at CU Law I interned for the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a coalition of water groups in Summit County, Colorado. It was hardly a pro-extraction group. But whether it was whooping cranes on the Platte, pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, or air pollution from uranium mining it was all about science. In those days and in heavily rural Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska the emotion was all on the side of the farmers and ranchers.
After several months of attending the FrackingSense forum at the Center for the American West I have had everyone of my preconceived views confirmed, but one. Water pollution, traffic, noise, pipeline construction and maintenance are all solvable problems under assault from people who act as if hydrocarbon production is a new untested industrial process. These problems deserve much more study and innovation, but they are not the problems to focus upon. The air pollution impact is much worse than I thought.
Off the record some of the top regulators in Colorado had warned me that this was the main issue. There are two grave distortions fostered by the environmental community diverting our attention from the methane, and more importantly, volatile organics currently flooding our new hydrocarbon fields. First, is that the unscientific video in Gasland and elsewhere points to a water table crisis. Second, is that the Clean Air Act does not apply to oil & gas production through the so called “Halliburton loophole”.
Both of these are false.
There are water use issues in some watersheds in Colorado, but in no watershed does oil and gas production require the kind of permanent substantial use that agriculture (80% of CO water useage mostly for cattle production) and municipal usage require. There is a ready and functioning water market with increasing use of industry recycling. You have a 100% recycling of the fracking fluid and a reasonable near term chance of 100% recycling of produced (ancient underground) water.
The issue is that there is substantial leakage of methane, and worse, volatile organics at the surface in the oil & gas fields. The leaks can come from drilling, particularly completion of the well processes. The leaks come from tanks, pipelines, dryers/evaporators, and other equipment. All of those leaks are regulated at the federal level under the Clean Air Act.
It is the exact opposite of Gasland.
We need the EPA to act within its existing authority to tighten the amount of leakage through the use of technology, enhanced monitoring, and inspections. The Clean Air Act is one of the most successful US regulatory efforts in history. Go back and watch video from the 1960s of any major US city before the Clean Air Act . You will cough in sympathy.
So much of the FrackingSense presentations have been about what we do not know. But it was clear already from Ms. Petron’s previous work and published measurements in Utah and Colorado that a field can be a “sea of methane” from leaks. More importantly accompanying that methane are volatile organics that in the presence of sunlight convert into ozone (O3), one of the original air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act.
Regardless of your view of the science on methane and climate change, nobody debates that ground based ozone kills people.
Instead of wasting all this effort on unknown water pollution and temporary disruptions to the surface, the environmental community should be focused like a laser on what we already know. We have a bad ozone pollution problem, regulated under the Clean Air Act, which we can abate right now. All it requires is the President to stop campaigning and start acting under existing law.