Colorado’s 30 Percent "Solution" for Fracking Pollution

Very long ago a fellow named Lou Saban, then coach of the Denver Broncos, went for a tie late in a football game against the Miami Dolphins.  His explanation was that half a loaf was better than nothing.  The faithful wanted to run him out of town on a rusty goal post.  He never recovered his tough guy image.

Now fast forward to this past November, Governor Hickenlooper announced that he had just entered into an agreement with three of the biggest polluters in the state to reduce their toxic air emissions.  As it turns out, these three, Anadarko, Encana, and Noble Energy, along with their smaller cohorts, contribute more health threatening air pollution from their oil and gas operations than do all other sources in the state combined.  These pollutants, called Volatile Organic Compounds, VOCs for short, were measured at 275,000 tons annually in 2011 according to the Governor at his press conference.   Yes, that’s right, 275,000 tons of toxic gasses annually, and the number grows each year as thousands of new wells are drilled and more VOCs are allowed to escape into the atmosphere.

But having no tough guy image to protect, and being unfamiliar, apparently, with Lou Saban’s unfortunate history, Hickenlooper was settling for something less than a third of a loaf.  That is, the frackers had agreed, in closed-door sessions, to reduce their VOCs from oil and gas production by about one third, or 92,000 tons.

The result is that the oil and gas industry will still contribute almost twice as much VOC pollution to our air as will all the automobiles in the state.   VOCs when combined with nitrous oxide and sunlight are the source of ozone, a major public health problem in the state.  For example, ozone is known to be a significant cause of asthma.  The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta estimated the annual public health costs of asthma at $56 billion in “medical costs, lost school and work days and early death.”  This is according to Dr. James Danforth, one of a growing number of physicians and health professionals in Colorado who are speaking out on the health threats posed by fracking.

It is unlikely this third-of-a-loaf maneuver will polish the Governor’s tarnished image as a man of the people.  Many citizens of Colorado will remember that when he first ran for governor one of his campaign ads showed him jumping into the shower with his clothes on over and over again to emphasize that he was squeaky clean, that he didn’t like dirty politics or dirty political ads, and that he was, in fact, an unpolitician.

Its important to keep in mind that while the Governor and senior representatives from the Big-Three polluters were throwing posies of civic responsibility and corporate high mindedness at each other at the Capitol, CRED, the recently formed propaganda arm of Anadarko and Noble Energy, was still filling the airwaves with ads portraying the industry as blameless, harmless, and, best of all, practicing “safe science.”  This clunky, illiterate coinage, with its vaguely suggestive overtones, brings nothing but the arched eyebrow and frown of disgust from the many mothers who make up the vast and growing army of citizens opposed to fracking, especially unfettered fracking in their cities and towns.  The corporate press, its loyalty to the industry repaid with full-page ads, would like to make this a battle of the big greens against big oil. It isn’t.  It’s not big against big. It’s big against the many. This is a citizen revolt against classic oligarchy.

CRED, signifying the corporate love affair with misappropriating common street language to disguise corporate greed, stands for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development.  Its spokeswoman is B. J. Nikkel.  She is a past Republican state legislator.  When at the Capitol, she was also the state political chair for ALEC.  As most people know, ALEC is the bastard child of the Koch brothers and has fought all form of corporate and environmental regulation. It was an early leader, along with Exxon-Mobile, in denying the science of climate change. More recently it has been less openly oppositional, though its unsuccessful multi-state campaign in 2013 to limit renewables shows it still sups with the devil.  Despite the governor and the industry’s press conference admissions that the industry is using our air as a garbage bag to dispose of its waste, Nikkel is quoted in a recent article in the independent Boulder Weekly as saying:

 “There have been study after study, dozens and dozens of studies, and independent studies, and studies even by the EPA, that show that hydraulic fracturing is done safely, and they can’t show any kind of ill health effects…I see no real information that shows me definitively that there are cases cited, legitimate cases cited, as issues with any health effects. I really believe it’s hype.”

She was not asked to backstop her paymasters at the Governor’s soirée, if she had CRED’s “everything’s rosy” ads might have had to cease.  They are still running, sometimes during Bronco games–the most expensive ad in town.

The duplicity is palpable, but is no greater than the Environmental Defense Fund’s. Their regional director was also at the soirée.  Dan Grossman, himself a former Democratic state legislator, was sandwiched comfortably between the oilmen.  He spoke glowingly of the third-of-a-loaf solution.

He did not mention that earlier in the fall EDF had released a study, partially funded by the oil industry, showing oil and gas drilling and production could be accomplished with practically no releases of methane or other air contaminants.  This study measured releases from fewer than 500 wells and under conditions dictated by the industry.  Still, the industry had trumpeted these results far and wide.  But no trumpet’s blare at this gathering.

Had the Governor said a third reduction in air pollution was only the beginning, and that there would be similar reductions over the next several years until something approaching zero emissions had been achieved, as the industry and EDF have claimed is possible and already achieved in places, he would have heard a different reaction from the folk.

Instead, several days later, at the first hearings before the Air Quality Control Commission on how these new standards were to be implemented, his proposal was greeted with disapproval, often muffled but sometimes openly defiant of the industry’s control over people’s homes and lives.

Of course the “stakeholders” were there: spokespersons for a few middle of the road environmental organizations described the proposed rules as another giant leap forward in saving the planet; some middle of the road Dem politicians, out to support their governor, spoke of the necessity for seeking the sacred middle ground in these fractured political times; and, of course, the industry, on queue and in mass, reminded everyone of the sacrifice they were making in the name of citizenship and public health.  Indeed, the industry is essential to the state’s economy, argued they, and we should to be careful not to kill the golden goose through over regulation.

These kinds of recitations on governmental and corporate virtue are a commonplace at the Colorado Capitol and at county commissioner and city council meetings throughout the state as citizens confront an industrial invasion that threatens their families, their health, their property, and their fundamental right of self determination.  As Laura Fronckiewicz, one of the mothers opposing fracking in her home city of Broomfield told me, “Why do I think they are never including my family when they start talking about their damn stakeholders?”

So what can we make of the governor’s regulations.  Well, for starters they will reduce waste and pollution, but by how much is an open question.  If drilling continues on a massive scale, new pollution from these new wells and the accompanying infrastructure could offset today’s third-of-a-loaf regulatory proposal.

The pollution measurements presented in the regulatory analysis are only a snapshot of what was there last year, and the data is the industry’s data, make no mistake.  With basically 8 to 10 full-time field inspectors, the state really only analyzes what the industry gives it.  There are over 50,000 operating wells in the state, and twice that many abandoned or closed wells, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data.

This industry’s control over reporting and enforcement is borne out by the following incident. Last fall, a devastating flood hit northern Colorado where much of the oil and gas development is centered.  There was concern about how much environmental damage had occurred from the hundreds of compromised oil and gas operations located in the various flood plains.  I asked the governor’s special representative, hired specifically to bird dog oil and gas damages from the flood, how much of the information being reported to the people of this state about oil and gas pollution from the floods was government generated, and how much industry generated?  This man, the former chief of staff for Senator Ken Salazar, said it was safe to say that 100 percent of the information being reported in the press had been generated by the industry.

Hickenlooper is fond of saying the state has the strongest rules in the country.  What he fails to mention is that enforcement of those rules is basically left up to the industry.  It is an honor system as Hickenlooper calls it, some more of that third-rail nonsense which champions the idea of deep government-corporate cooperation.  In former times, this tightly knit sharing of government between a ruling elite and major industries in the name of efficiency, and to the general exclusion of the populous, might have been viewed as something far more sinister.  Fascism comes to mind.

Indeed, apply the honor principle to any other regulatory regime.  Take highway safety for instance.  Can’t we all agree that without a strong enforcement presence the highways would be mayhem?  A gun permit might become de rigueur for every driver’s license application.  And this is not to imply that the people on the highways are any less responsible than the oil and gas people.

The new air rules will make no change to this regulatory regimen.

Furthermore, the regulatory costs to the industry have been greatly exaggerated since the state’s economic analysis does not net out the value of the methane and other gasses that will be captured and brought to market under these regs.  My confederate Wes Wilson, a retired EPA environmental engineer, told me that earlier EPA studies show that many of the pollution-control costs could be recovered in as little as a year through increased sales of methane and the heavier gasses.  And of course you have the wholly ignored requirement in state law that waste of oil and gas is unlawful.  Its enforcement might prove hurtful in these difficult times, however.

The proposed regulations will do nothing about distribution pipeline leaks, the pipes that deliver natural gas to our homes and businesses.  They only deal with pipelines in the oil and gas fields, and even then in a very cursory manner.  Yet, distribution pipelines are a significant source of methane pollution. For example a recent congressional study showed that in Boston gas pipelines are so sieve-like that almost half of the gas leaked out before it reached ratepayers.  Because the rates for users are based on what the utilities buy, and are not adjusted for what is leaked after purchase, very little incentive, other than good citizenship, exists to increase efficiency through costly repairs unless specific leaks within the system have been deemed to threaten fire or explosion.

Xcel, Colorado’s major utility, was granted a rate increase through Colorado’s Public Utility Commission, PUC, of $77 million last month.  Part of the money will go to replace aging pipelines across the state.   Xcel says some of the pipes are over 50 years old.  What is remarkable about this is that ratepayers have been paying for the gas lost in a leaky system for years, and now they will have to pay again for repairs through a rate increase.

Hickenlooper might have helped the public out by using federal money at his disposal to plug holes in the gas sieve.  He recently received  $30 million in federal funds for reducing air pollution.  He is using it instead to build 30 natural gas fueling stations along major corridors, and to add as many as 1000 natural gas vehicles to the state’s fleet.  He said his action “…supports locally produced energy, improves air quality and can save money through lower fuel costs.”  A friend said contemptuously, on hearing the governor’s explanation, that, “he bet Conoco, Texaco, and Exxon wished Hick had been governor when they were building their service stations back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  He could have built theirs, too.”

It may be only coincidental, but the Director of the PUC, Doug Dean, who approved the PUC rate increase, was formerly the Republican Speaker of the House.  And like CRED’s Nikkel, he had been ALEC’s state political director while at the legislature.  His state bio page says that while there he was instrumental in sponsoring legislation giving $14 million annually to the state’s tourism industry.  Tourism is the largest industry in the state.  As such, some think it should pay its own way.   He also supported a handout of over $300 million to build a new stadium for the Denver Broncos, an NFL team.   The NFL, as a corporation, is by federal law immune to antitrust laws and is tax exempt.  But perhaps most famously, Mr. Dean was arrested while Speaker for attempting to enter his estranged girlfriend/lobbyist’s bedroom window by means of a screwdriver.  He told police that he was only looking for his lost phone charger.

Hickenlooper’s own appointments to the PUC are revealing.  He appointed Joshua Epel to chair the commission in 2011.  Epel had been Assistant General Counsel at DCP Midstream, where, according to his bio, he had helped develop the company’s climate change strategy. DCP Midstream, a subsidiary of Conoco-Phillips and a member of ALEC, is the largest natural gas gathering and processing company in the United States.

It is also probably a coincidence that Hickenlooper has recently nominated Glenn Vaad, another former Republican legislator of more recent vintage to the PUC.  At the legislature, he represented Weld County, the epicenter of oil and gas pollution in the state. He was also a political director for ALEC when there and received an achievement award from them.   His nomination has created disbelief among the Democratic faithful and renewable energy folk in the state.

One wonders why anyone experiences disbelief, for it seems all-of-a-piece when it comes to governmental non-regulation of the oil and gas industry.  This is especially true upon learning that last month, Hickenlooper himself signed onto an organization of governors from oil producing states, called States First, that wants the United States to turn over the management of federal lands to the states for oil and gas development.  The organization is industry sponsored and overwhelmingly Republican.  It puts the open-collared, squeaky-clean Hickenlooper on the same photo page with Rick Perry of Texas and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.

But what of the industry’s pipelines in the oil and gas fields themselves, before the oil and gas are sold to utilities? The new rules say the pipes will be monitored, but the analysis stops there. Recent scientific studies by NOAA show that leaks from all production sources in Colorado’s Wattenberg field range from 3 to 8 percent of total production.  Methane leaks in the Uintah basin, in neighboring Utah, range from 7 to 12 percent. Greatest of all was the Los Angeles basin, where the measurement was a high of 18 percent.

But it is the amount of gas that’s wasted through the process of burning or flaring that has some observers most alarmed from a waste standpoint. This is in addition to what is leaked in the field and distribution lines, and is not part of that measurement.  For example in the Bakken oil field in North Dakota, the amount of natural gas that is burned annually has been conservatively estimated bu CERES to be 30 percent of all production, enough to heat all the homes in Chicago and Washington, DC combined. Or, if you prefer, flared gas wastes roughly $1 billion in fuel that could otherwise heat homes, and it adds the global-warming- equivalent of one million more cars on the road.

In the Bakken, oil is the prize.  This is also true in Colorado.  Studies show that both oil and gas can be profitable, but per comparable unit of measurement, oil has a value at least 30 times greater than natural gas on today’s market where a glut of natural gas exists.  Thus, natural gas is simply burned off until a pipeline is constructed, for unlike oil, gas cannot be reasonably stored.

Similar estimates on flaring waste in Colorado are not available. But we do know that Colorado is the fifth largest gas producing state in the nation, producing 1.7 trillion cubic feet in 2012, almost 8 percent of the national total.   This is 10 times the gas production of North Dakota.  So, even if only 3 percent of Colorado’s gas production were flared, the monetary value of the resource losses and the automobile impacts on climate would be the same.  This is an extremely conservative estimate since North Dakota has no plans to reach a 3 percent flaring threshold.  Its best hope is that by 2020 it might reduce its flaring to 10 percent of production.

Then of course we still have the 3 to 12 percent leak rate of methane in the gas fields themselves, as measured by NOAA.  This more than doubles the monetary loss and increases the climate impact compared to automobiles exponentially.  From a climate perspective, methane is 80 to 100 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2 over a 20-year time horizon.

It is probably unnecessary to add into the calculation the contribution of leaked methane from private utility companies like Xcel.  Even the dullest politician can see by now that if the industry were charged for what it wasted from production site to market, solar would be a hands down winner in terms of public cost and climate protection.  But there’s more.  Public health.

Here again the state does not analyze the public health costs of only going for the third-of-a–loaf solution.  In fact, it doesn’t examine pubic health impacts at all.  As stated earlier the CDC, using 2007 data, has estimated that asthma costs the American people $56 billion annually.  The relationship between asthma and VOC releases is strong.  Since 2007 Colorado’s oil production has increased by over 64 percent and its gas production by over 27 percent. As the fifth largest producer of natural gas in the nation, the industry’s contribution to increased health care costs in the state must be great, perhaps in the billions of dollars annually.

Asthma is only one public health marker.  There are dozens of others.  Two recent studies in Colorado document the potential long-term dangers of many of these chemicals to human, and presumably animal, hormonal systems.  One study by the Colorado School of Public Health measured 46 different toxic chemicals at 2700 feet, or nine football fields, from the well site being monitored.  They estimated the measured benzene, alone, might increase cancer deaths by 6 in a million.  This number was pooh-poohed as insignificant by some commentators, including a senior state regulator.  But that is only true if you don’t happen to be one of the six dead people.  Last year, several months after its release, I asked the lead scientist for the CSPH study if she had been contacted by the governor or one of his representatives about the study and its public health implications?  She said, no.

Later, a bill introduced by a first year legislator, Joann Ginal, a PhD endocrinologist, was defeated when the head of the state’s Department of Public Health, Dr. Chris Urbina, testified against it.  This provided the cover for Dave Young, a Democratic legislator from Weld County, to vote against it, neutralizing the Democratic majority in the committee.  The bill would have started a process for collecting health data from physicians and hospitals on the illnesses of people who live in or near oil and gas production activities.  Dr. Urbina, the governor’s spokesperson at the hearing, has gone on to greener pastures.  His replacement, Dr. Wolk, was at the governor’s press conference.  He was refreshingly honest about the health threats the industry’s air pollution poses, noticeably to the Governor’s unease.

Ultimately, the question must be, how much responsibility do the politicians and the regulators bear for allowing this sort of plundering of the earth and its inhabitants to occur under the guise of economic development?  The deeper question, perhaps, is how much responsibility do we bear if we, the people, allow it to continue?

Not long ago the economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote an essay in which he explained why he thinks government, at every level, in this country is so distrusted and dysfunctional. The title of the essay is, “In No One We Trust.”

Stiglitz was thinking mostly of the Wall Street thieves when he wrote the article.  It is what he knows best, after all.  But his observations apply equally well to the oil industry in Colorado, for big money, whether it be Wall Street or agribusiness or the oil industry, always seems to seek the control of government regulation. His conclusion is that the only hope we have of re-creating public trust in our institutions of government is through strong regulation guided by a sense of social wellbeing and common decency.

Does public trust have any chance in the white gloves, self-regulatory regime Hickenlooper has fostered toward the oil industry in this state?  Stiglitz would argue no. Prayerful enforcement only results in greater distrust and anger.

Still the genie is out of the bottle, never to be put back again.  The audience had to listen very carefully to hear the governor admit at his press conference, with the big three polluters in tow, and his new head of pubic health nodding enthusiastic agreement, that fracking is a threat to public health.  He has a constitutional obligation to see that that threat is eliminated.  These regulations will not do that.  They are an illusion, as surely he must know.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached


PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. Doe is a co-sponsor of a public trust initiative that would turn the tables on the permitting process by making those seeking to use public resources, air, land, and water, to first demonstrate that the proposed use would not irreparably harm those resources–the reverse of the present permitting process. He can be reached