May 3, 2013

Are We Making Any Fracking Sense Yet?

Governor John Hickenlooper, self proclaimed recovering geologist.

Fracking: the Oil & Gas industry spent $36 million funding 500+ lobbyists & 100+ industry groups according to Senate’s Public Records.

The Governor of Colorado skillfully skirted the difficult questions at the Center of the American West event last night.

The University of Colorado Math 100 lecture hall was filled to overflowing as Patty Limerick—the erudite, insightful and delightful Chair of the Board for the Center of the American West welcomed and warned the packed audience to be polite and respectful to our Governor. After all, in today’s politically correct and often controlled environments, controversial subjects require more listening than shouting. In her endearing manner, Patty appealed for honest, civil and respectful behavior.

In a “Do as I say, not as I did,” moment, Professor Limerick admitted that she shouted down former President Reagan (when he was Governor of California). She engaged in this “radical” behavior as a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz over the firing of Angela Davis from UCLA in 1968. She also admitted that she slammed her fist against then Governor Reagan’s limousine as it passed through the crowd of activists.

I’m sure the statute of limitations has passed, so my revealing this to elephant readers will not land Patty in the paddy wagon.

Paddy Wagon – Flickr Creative Commons

No doubt, the Homeland Security folks will allow Patty to continue with her excellent programs as a free woman. She will continue to serve as the Air,Water, Gas Routes to Sustainability Outreach Coordinator for the next several years. This program is conducted by the Center for the American West in collaboration with CU continuing education, Boulder County and a five year, 12 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation.

As a result of this grant, Ms. Limerick is sworn to neutrality.

The entire lecture series is available as podcasts for we serious citizens who want to formulate a well educated and fully informed position.

Despite Patty’s plea for civility, a courageous woman in the back of the hall did shout out in protest that our Governor was making light of the serious human health problems and possible cancers that may well be linked to the practice of fracking. She was quite angry and outspoken when he joked about people in Houston growing accustomed to living in harmony with the oil industry. She was swiftly removed by two large, badged, armed and persuasive law enforcement fellows.

To balance the male/female equation later in the program a man was also escorted out when he urged the audience to read the March 2013 issue of National Geographic to get the facts on fracking.

Click here for elephant coverage of fracking.

Discussion ensued regarding the challenge of Federal Regulations, vs. State vs. County vs. local—reference was made to James Madison and the Federalist papers. Our Governor offered a quick Cliffs Notes version of Madison’s position regarding pros and cons of controversial issues: they would be resolved by civil discourse and “zero out” in the face of an honest investigation of the “facts.” Of course, Madison could never have anticipated that Corporations would be considered “persons” in the 21st Century and have free speech “rights” to overwhelm public discourse with unlimited advertising, and marketing propaganda. In 2012 the Oil and Gas industry spent 36 million dollars funding more than 500 lobbyists and more than 100 industry association groups, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. Beyond lobbying, business interests out spend citizen/cause efforts five to one in persuasive print and media advertising efforts.

To be fair, John Hickenlooper is a nice guy, how could a brew pub owner be anything less? Don’t forget his efforts to revitalize the lower downtown area of Denver embodied a bold and visionary energy. His intention was inspired in part to diminish our carbon footprint by providing places to live and work within walking distance. This kind of land use provides a mitigating balance to the “hypocrisy of the suburbs” that Patty Limerick brought up during her questions to the Governor.

Last night, Governor Hickenlooper revealed that he is constantly under attack for his apparent alignment with the oil and gas industry. He is trying to be a “fair witness” in the spirit of the Quaker tradition of being impartial. He clearly dislikes the complexity of the “split estate” rules that govern sub-surface mineral rights, however, he doesn’t seem to put the “taking by extractive industries of our clean water and air” on equal terms with his concern about “illegal taking” when communities vote to ban fracking in their neighborhoods. When will we transcend the cultural default position that everything has a price? Isn’t it time to devise a system that is better than measuring everything in terms of money?

Speaking of money and land use priorities, oil and gas extraction is now the dominant land use in North America. The oil and gas industry owns or leases 10 percent of the land in the lower 48 states; more land than will be planted in corn and wheat—according to Randy Udall. There are more oil rigs in North Dakota’s Bakken field than are operating in all of Saudi Arabia. In 2012 nearly 50,000 oil and gas wells were started—more than in all other nations combined. In the Rocky Mountains in just the past 12 years more than 100,000 wells have been drilled and half of them are concentrated in just five counties.

The question of where do you get your facts was persistent last night and, I for one, left Math 100 less than satisfied by our Governor’s response. When he was pressed repeatedly on the source of his facts, he shared the story about his son telling him he had an easy 4 step job: 1) Get the Facts; 2) Make a Decision, 3) Check; and step #4) Next!  It may be time for our self proclaimed recovering geologist to check back into rehab and seek out the facts more rigorously.

This is not meant to be disrespectful, simply my observation that his comments revealed a lack of concern for the clearly evident negative impacts and unknown future impacts of the entire industry on our lives and the health of our environment. He suggested we just don’t have enough evidence and need to study the issues more. We’ve heard that before. He is extremely proud of the regulatory environment in Colorado he has helped to create. His reliance upon these regulations begs the question of citizen’s rights to say no to Fracking until the research is done (the United States Geological Survey USGS scientists have already confirmed that fracking wells contributed to Earth Quakes in the mid west) —prior to so many wells being leased and drilled. When will we humans stop plundering Gaia?

On a positive note, Governor Hickenlooper pointed out that Colorado is the first state to require energy companies to test ground water before and after they drill wells. Many believe he is trying to do the right thing.

That’s all well and good, however, no amount of financial penalties can restore toxic groundwater after the fact. What do we say when the enforcers of these new regulations discover our human mistakes, spills and mishaps 1, 2 or 3 years down the line?  “Oops”! Engineers and geologists are generally trained to think of the Earth as a static entity that humans can manage, manipulate and control. Naturalists and those advocating an immediate shift to clean, renewable energy sources embrace the Gaia principle and know the Earth is constantly changing. No amount of cement or steel casing is capable of withstanding the inevitable shifts in the Earth’s bed rock over time. Our willy nilly drilling frenzy to satisfy our insatiable appetite for energy, driven by demand to meet our energy needs, often to support over-the-top life styles and fuel economic growth represents behavior that is in serious need of re-evaluating. It’s time to revisit the motivation to constantly increase share holder profits, especially when our appetite for more money places the future health of our ecological systems that support all forms of life in serious jeopardy. You may have seen the image of the Earth buried in high rise buildings reminiscent of Wall Street with a caption: “if you think the economy is more important than ecology, try holding your breathe while you count your money.”

Here’s the rub, the enforcement of regulations can’t possibly keep up with the frenzy of activity and we all know that serious accidents happen!  It would be naive to believe that the regulatory agencies are not subject to manipulation by the very businesses they are supposed to be monitoring. Don’t forget, it was only 5 or 6 years ago when the Minerals Management Service and the Department of Interior was embroiled in an astonishing Sex and Drug scandal right here in Denver.

When the Colorado Governor described the potential that toxic fracking fluid might “communicate” with ground water in the event of a leak in the casing, I could only shake my head at his use of such a skillful rhetorical euphemism for “contaminate” our water supply. Are the issues complex? Yes. Are the scientist’s uncertain? Yes. Is the public confused? For the most part, yes. Can we believe the “facts” that fracking is safe? (make up your own mind). There is a significant amount of evidence to the contrary, right here in Erie, Colorado where children are suffering nose bleeds and other health issues who live near Fracking wells.

Am I personally confident we are on a wise course of balancing our energy “needs” with protection of our air and water? Absolutely not! We have infinite possibilities to change our direction and our energy future. Just think about the potential of distributed generation of energy on everyone’s roof tops – it would transform our world and all the nasty geo-politics along with it, not to mention billions of dollars in saved military and health benefits. We haven’t even touched on efficiency as a strategy.  At least 50% of all electricity generated is lost through transmission lines and the grid.

The loudest applause came from the audience when the question was asked: “If fracking is safe, how do you explain the nose bleeds, headaches and neurological disorders that are increasingly associated with people living near fracking wells? The precautionary principle must prevail, if we are to maintain a decent quality of life for the present and future inhabitants of this planet.

I leave you today with two more resources for your further inquiry, however, beware of an emerging trend called “the well informed futility syndrome”… to find out what that means precisely, listen to this fascinating Bill Moyers interview with a biologist and mother who was just sent to jail for blocking the entrance to a fracking well in New York on behalf of her children and all of us.

The second resource related to courageous civil disobedience is to see Bidder 70, the Sundance award winning documentary film about college student Tim DeChristopher. It was skillfully produced by a couple from Telluride. This gripping film documents his imprisonment for “bidding” during an illegal oil and gas leasing auction. His intention was to protect his beloved Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Ironically he was released from two years in prison on Earth Day this year!


Ah, the “well informed futility syndrome”—you might ask your doctor if you suffer from this malady. The primary symptoms are apathy, paralyzing despair and deep resignation…an attitude of go along, get along, “why should I risk rocking the boat”.  So far, the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t invented a drug to address the epidemic of psychic numbing that has gripped our nation.

Inward and Onward with Courage.


For more:

An article related to Hick and fracking in the Westword from late last year.

Quote from the article:

“As drilling goes to where it’s never been before, we’re going to hear concerns,” Hickenlooper said. “But I have said all along that our groundwater is so far from [the formations being fracked] that there’s almost no possibility that we’re going to see contamination from fracking.”

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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