WyoFile Energy Report

Screening and discussion focuses on communities dealing with fracking

— January 16, 2013

If you’re in Casper this Thursday evening you might consider catching Promised Land at the Studio City movie theater complex, if not for the big name movie stars — Matt Damon and Frances McDormand — then for the discussion afterward about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the effects — good and bad — it is having on many communities throughout the U.S.

Dustin Bleizeffer
Dustin Bleizeffer

The screening begins at 7 p.m. and the discussion will follow immediately after the movie right there at Studio City. The event is organized by Independence Rock Group, a faith-based organization that describes itself as a “center for faith, ethics, and public affairs.” The discussion will be led by Independence Rock Group executive director Chris Henrichsen. Henrichsen says he’s also invited Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jeremy Fugleberg, who has covered fracking and other forms of energy development in Wyoming, to participate as well.

I cannot attend the discussion, but I told Mr. Henrichsen that I’d offer a few thoughts and observations on fracking and what energy development means to communities.

First, I like to tell people that fracking — and nearly any industrial technology — isn’t a bad thing. Natural gas, oil and coal are not inherently bad or dangerous things, either. It’s what we do with those substances. With the privilege of having an abundance of these resources, our nation also has a responsibility to harvest and use these resources in a responsible manner. Jobs and profits must not be the only factors.

I’m not alarmed at all about fracking — injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into deep geologic zones that are already packed with toxic petroleum compounds. Today’s drilling and well-completion technologies are fascinating and exciting, and who knows where they will lead us beyond oil and gas production. What alarms me is an apparent lack of liability, because there will be spills and accidents.

A majority of the shale gas and tight-sands gas drilling and fracking that has occurred over the past decade was done without prior baseline testing of groundwater and drinking water resources. Without that vital information in hand before operations begin, it is nearly impossible to perform the post-fracking forensic investigation to prove any activity might have contaminated groundwater or drinking water.

This lack of liability can easily be addressed by requiring such baseline testing, ongoing monitoring and full-disclosure reporting. Keep in mind that a lot of these measures are being undertaken by some operators, but it shouldn’t be a voluntary, good-faith handshake. That’s not how matters of liability are supposed to work these days. And you’re kidding yourself if you believe that politics sometimes overrides science only at federal agencies, and not at the city, county and state level. But you’re not kidding the rest of us.

That’s a short-take on the regulatory side. As for communities that suddenly find themselves near, or in the middle of, modern onshore drilling plays, I would say, please do not marginalize neighbors who are impacted by the development and would rather see it go away. I observed early on — way back during the onset of the coal-bed methane gas boom in the Powder River Basin, circa 1998 — that drilling operations impact each neighbor differently. There are winners and losers. And for the majority of landowners who do not own mineral rights, they don’t get to choose which company comes knocking on their door to develop the minerals below that piece of land that means the world to them.

Complaints should be taken very seriously, and homeowners should never be burdened with having to investigate what’s happening 300 feet or 13,000 feet below the surface. State and federal regulators ought to have the resources needed to provide complete answers in a timely fashion.

It’s a very personal thing when the integrity of your family’s health, your home, your land and your water are threatened, or even perceived to be threatened. There are many good players in the oil & gas industry, but it’s not fair or wise to downplay the industrial intensity of drilling these wells. It’s never fair or wise to downplay the concerns of homeowners and communities who rightfully have endless questions about drilling operations and what’s happening to their air and water.

And I believe that events like the one that Independence Rock Group is organizing can provide a forum for calm, respectable discussions. Communities need constant communication to make sure that while the overall community enjoys an economic shot in the arm it doesn’t unnecessarily burden others. Fracking isn’t bad, it’s how you do it, whether we’re going to hold companies liable for their own actions, and whether we’re going to help those who are feeling the impacts more than others.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. The plotline of ” Promised Land” is not about fracking, per se. It follows two Landmen for a fictional natural gas drilling corporation as they scour a dirt poor rural area of Pennsylvania to pleasantly but firmly coerce poor residents into signing lease agreements for what to them is Big Money. Fracking hardly comes into the script ( by the way , Steve Butler is the character Matt Damon plays…not another actor…the other leads are played by the always excellent Hal Holbrook and Frances McDormand). ” promised Land’s” script revolves around an inside move by the same company Damon is selling leases for , behind his back. They create a phony environmental consultancy who comes into town at the same time and starts a rhetorical emotive campaign against Damon and his partners own efforts. The idea was to expose the phony environmentalism at the last minute and turn the populace back towards signing away their property to the drillers, feeling they had been duped. Except to say it doesn’t quite work out that way in the end— without giving out any more spoilers.

    Suffice to say this is a movie about fictional Dirty Tricks used by energy corporations , not about fracking and its impacts directly. This is not Josh Fox’s ” Gasland” documentary retooled with a narrative plot. It’s about corporate deceptions… one corporation with two pincers squeezing a naive town from both sides. Either way , they win.

    When exactly has THAT ever happened ? I wonder where this script came from, why, and where it wants us to go after watching the movie. ? Discussion , if you’ve seen it.

    P.S. This film was direct by Gus Van Sant , not one to shy away from dramatics.

  2. I lean closer to Bob LeResche’s position than Dustin’s.
    The safety and assurances of fracking are all based on theoretical perfection — that bores and cement jobs are done perfectly and understanding the hideous complexity of underground geology is perfectly understood and accounted for by the drilling companies.
    Honest geologists, hydrologists and petroleum engineers readily confess to operating in and around the infamous “black box”, where guessing is commonplace and absolute knowledge is a remote goal, not a reality.
    Such high degree of perfection might be achieved by academics or as a demonstration project by a company eager to schmooze regulators. But in the fevered Oklahoma land-rush atmosphere that’s been created today, I have little to no confidence that fracking is being done well.

  3. Anyone who would extract water from the ground and drink it without concern to unusual taste probably gets what they deserve. The advantage of most ground water to most municipal water is that the former doesn’t contain chlorine and fluorine, the latter being the most poisonous substance routinely added to drinking water. With what is routinely added to our drinking water, one might be safer to drink fracking solution instead.

  4. A very thoughtful and empathetic set of comments.
    I’d differ on a couple of things, though. On the regulatory end, there is fracking done safely and sloppy fracking. There are sound, well maintained bores and poorly cemented over-pressured wells. There is safely-disposed or recycled flowback and produced water and leaked, dumped, spilled fluids. There is fracking silica properly contained and what gets inhaled at the job site. There are millions of gallons of fresh water drained forever from a potable aquifer, or water from a properly managed source. “Liability” alone might encourage safe rational operations, but fair sound regulation before the fact helps everybody by preventing liability from ever becoming an issue. Baseline knowledge might eventually help determine liability if something goes wrong, but doesn’t ensure a competent frack job.
    In the end, I’ve little confidence in the efficacy of “discussion.” Research, education, regulation, inspection/monitoring and enforcement yes. Kumbayah, nope.
    But again, great job on a really difficult topic.