Hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has been used to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock for decades. But technological improvements in recent years have made the process far more efficient. It’s expanded use in states like North Dakota, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado has sparked an energy revolution that is pushing the United States toward energy independence. It has also sparked major controversy over environmental concerns, nowhere more so than in California. On Sept. 20, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation regulating fracking. In this essay below, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, like Brown an environmentally oriented Democrat, makes the case that energy development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.
A 21st-century oil and natural gas industry in Colorado is recognizing that more rigorous regulations translate into broader citizen acceptance. This evolution, and the joining of innovations like horizontal drilling with long-accepted practices like hydraulic fracturing, is moving America toward energy independence.
In the process, we are improving the quality of the air, as well as beginning to fight back against climate change.
Colorado has a proud history of leadership and innovation in the deployment of clean energy technologies. We have laws in place that require utilities to produce as much as 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Natural gas has emerged as a valuable complement to renewable energy. Because gas-powered utility plants can readily ramp up and down over short periods in response to fluctuating energy demands, it makes for a strong marriage with renewables. Wind energy continues to grow as an important resource in Colorado and at times provides more than half of the electricity generated by our state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy.
Greater deployment of natural gas is also the source of dramatic reductions in carbon emissions. In fact, due largely to the shift from burning coal to gas for electricity generation, the United States is more than halfway to the Kyoto Protocol goals of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels. In Colorado, Xcel Energy has reduced its carbon emissions 11 percent from 2005 levels and recent legislation will lead to greater shifts from coal to gas. If climate change is a serious threat, then these facts make a persuasive case for the cleaner attributes of natural gas.
Using natural gas in power plants and, increasingly, in vehicle and truck fleets also reduces a wide array of air pollutants that affect public health and accumulate in the natural environment. Generating power with gas in place of coal, for example, reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides by nearly 80 percent. It cuts sulfur dioxide to nearly zero and it eliminates mercury, a toxin that builds up in the fish that we eat. It slashes the emissions of tiny particulates that can damage our respiratory systems.
The public rightly wants assurances that oil and gas development can be conducted safely, especially as newly accessible reserves sometimes exist under neighborhoods, parks and schools. Extracting these resources must be done without harm to groundwater supplies or unacceptable impacts to the air we breathe. In Colorado, we are addressing these matters with a steady flow of new rules dating to 2007.
With extensive involvement from interested parties, including environmental groups and industry representatives, we’ve developed a suite of rules. These rules provide public disclosure of fracturing chemicals, dramatically expanded requirements for groundwater sampling before and after drilling occurs, and major new steps to reduce impacts when wells are drilled near homes and businesses.
We continue to aggressively address air pollutants associated with oil and gas development. We’ve ratcheted up requirements that operators reduce the compounds that contribute to the formation of unhealthy ground-level ozone. We’ve required “closed-loop” drilling in proximity to homes so chemicals are captured and stored to reduce emissions and odors. We were one of the first states to require “green completions,” a process that dramatically reduces the venting of methane that can occur when new wells are completed. We were also the first state to begin implementing new EPA rules designed to reduce emissions, rules that themselves were modeled in part on what Colorado was already doing.
Colorado’s been at this a while. In 2008, the General Assembly did the important job of remaking the oversight board that regulates oil and gas development so that it reflects a far broader range of Coloradans and interests, and makes protecting public health, the environment and wildlife a mission on par with facilitating the safe development of mineral rights.
Even as we point to these accomplishments, we recognize the need to adapt to new information as part of an ever-evolving regulatory approach. We are participating in developing new data, partnering with academic scientists at Colorado State University and our own health department to better understand the dispersal of emissions resulting from oil and gas development and whether any specific pollutants and exposures present risks to public health.
Coloradans understand the challenges associated with a sustainable water supply. We see water as a precious resource that must be managed with great care. Hydraulic fracturing depends on water, and significant volumes can go into a single well. In context, we also understand that it’s a small fraction of the water used in our state, about a tenth of one percent. Industry shares our desire to conserve water. People in oil and gas development love Colorado no less than anyone else, and we’re encouraged by the rapid innovations designed to significantly reduce and recycle the water required for hydraulic fracturing.
We’ve shown that strong regulations, responsible operators and an engaged public combine to make hydraulic fracturing a safe and critical part of our energy picture.
Even as we champion the environmental advantages, it’s important to consider the economic benefits. A recent study from international consulting firm IHS found unconventional oil and gas accounted for 77,000 jobs and $5.9 billion in labor income in Colorado 2012. The same study also found the industry in Colorado provided nearly $3 billion in public revenues through tax payments, with about half of that to state and local governments. Those dollars and jobs have been especially critical as we emerge from a crushing recession and lingering unemployment challenges.
The same kind of impact on employment and economics is true nationally. The industry is supporting 1.7 million jobs. The ability to develop shale gas has changed the country’s energy security picture right before our eyes. Our nation’s dependence on unstable regimes for energy is dwindling as we become one of the world’s leading producers.
This ability to produce our own low-cost, cleaner energy is drawing manufacturing back to the United States and making us more competitive worldwide. Foreign investment in electricity-intensive industries is also flowing into the country and keeping household utility rates low and stable.
The benefits of cleaner, cheaper energy to the environment, economy and national security are clear. Developing natural gas resources reduces impacts on climate and improves air quality, all while making it easier to incorporate renewable energy into the mix of supplies. Hydraulic fracturing is thoroughly regulated with state-level oversight that can quickly adapt to new information. The industry continues to innovate at a rapid pace in ways that reduces the footprint of development, reduces environmental impacts and relies on less water to generate these resources. We must all continue to push to accelerate these improvements.
John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is the governor of Colorado. This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune and is republished here with permission.