City Council recently decided to allow hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas within city limits. The first major Colorado municipality to sign off on such a measure, Colorado Springs met staunch resistance by protesters on the day of the decision and soon thereafter.
CC students initiated some of the activism: protests, letter signings, and Facebook petitions to gather the anti-fracking forces. Yet as observers, it’s hard not to notice important misunderstandings and shortcomings of advocates on both sides of this polarizing issue.
This column neither stands firmly behind nor against fracking. Instead, this article calls for a more balanced and more informed dialogue about what fracking is, the risks it poses, and what it could mean for Colorado’s and the United States’ energy supply picture. As representatives of the Energy, Environment, and Security Project at Colorado College, we feel responsible to disseminate clear and nonbiased information on fracking. Neither “Gasland” nor the industry-reported chemical registries alone should suffice to inform the campus community on the benefits and disadvantages of fracking.
While most have seen the images of faucets on fire with polluted water, the fact is that when done properly, fracking protects our air and water. Regulations are the only measures that can minimize that small minority of badly drilled wells—having consequences and standards for all procedures. The few cases of contaminated groundwater were not from the miles-deep drilling but from spills and leakages at the rig on the surface—in many cases, these occurred before regulations and public attention turned to fracking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health, two of the most highly respected government agencies for scientific health research, are yet to provide unequivocal evidence of the dangers of fracking to human and environmental health. Yet just as other industries have strict restrictions and regulations, the hydraulic fracturing industry must be held accountable for its actions.
Both sides are guilty of not telling the whole story. Opponents of fracking ignore the success of regulations and precautions production companies have taken since early spills. While activists might back stern regulation of air and water in other industries, they seem to lack faith in the fracking regulations, perhaps because hydraulic fracturing is such a recently developed technology.
Colorado’s largest state-based citizens’ group, Colorado Environmental Coalition, has even applauded the state government for implementing progressive regulations and the requirement for the disclosure of all fracking chemicals. (ourcolorado.org)
At the same time, oil and gas companies are responsible for shifting the burden of proof away from the industry and towards scientists and academia. These industries frequently shy away from providing scientifically acceptable proof of the safety of extraction processes. Instead, the burden often falls squarely on the shoulders of those potentially impacted by oil and gas extraction.
The fact is that without cheap natural gas, we increase our dependence on coal, which requires mountain top removal in Appalachia and intensive mining in neighboring Wyoming. We should remember—Colorado receives 62 percent of its electricity through coal-fired power plants like the one downtown. In fact, Colorado Springs Utility’s usage of coal is one of the highest in the state at 66 percent.
The U.S. is at a 20-year low in greenhouse gas emissions. This reduction did not occur due to cap and trade legislation, which we’ve been unable to pass due both to a lagging economy and stalemate in Congress. Instead, the two-decade low in emissions is due to the implementation of policies limiting the use of coal in electrical generation, and the abundance of low cost natural gas that has encouraged the phasing out of coal-fired power plants. The immediate 50 percent reduction in carbon output from transitioning coal plants to natural gas is a variable in the fracking equation that must not go overlooked.
Fracking for natural gas is not the long-term solution we’ve all been waiting for, but it deserves to be seen as a critical transition fuel, one that will help us reduce our staggering reliance on coal as we usher in an ever-increasing use of renewable energy sources. Switching to solar, wind, or hydro won’t happen overnight and we should be receptive to a fuel that emits half the amount of carbon than traditional electric generation through coal. This strategy makes sense as long as it can be produced in a manner that protects our air and water.
No energy source propels our nation singlehandedly, and no energy source ever will. In this complex environment, we must all do our best to be advocates for what we need and what we want. In this case, we need to be more informed on the real benefits and disadvantages of gas, and not just the information we chose to pay attention to.
One step is to do some research on your own, find neutral sources and balanced information from not only industry and environmental groups but also from academics and government agencies. Furthermore, the Energy, Environment, and Security Project is partnering with State of the Rockies to host a panel on campus examining all sides of the fracking issue from various perspectives: industry, environmental non-profit, government, and others. Until then, be sure to contemplate the complex issue before you decide to sign a petition or picket city hall.
Contact Chris Edmonds or Philip Angelides to learn more about the panel.
Philip Angelides and Chris Edmonds