Guest Columns


The flack over fracking continues — it’s time to export common sense

Contributing Columnist

It’s only been in the last year or so that controversy has erupted over the practice of “fracking,” an energy industry term that’s shorthand for “hydraulic fracturing,” a technique used to disrupt underground formations and release the oil and gas captured in the geological strata.

More precisely, fracking is a process that requires large volumes of water and sand, and a smaller amount of chemicals. The high-pressure mixture is injected into drilled wells and the fluid “fractures” or “disrupts” shale rock located deep underground to unlock natural gas and other recoverable energy elements.

The disruption I’ve seen is more on the public front, and I’m wondering why the oil and gas industry is so far behind the curve in speaking out. The usual suspect anti-everything environmental groups seem to have taken control of the public dialogue, and the industry is still catching up. Common sense doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion.

The state’s best known fracking advocate is none other than the state’s geologist-in-chief, Gov. Hickenlooper. He’s been on the radio ads for the oil and gas association, and he offers a strong defense of the technique, touting “Colorado’s toughest and fairest fracking rules.” Hickenlooper told Fortune magazine, “If done properly, certainly out in the West, there is literally no risk — certainly much less than many industrial processes.”

That message isn’t being heard. The fracking providers themselves need to be talking about safety, environmental protection, and responsible practices. But they’re not, and that’s puzzling. They have just as much at stake as the oil and gas operators for whom they’re providing fracking services.

In the meantime, we have 13 environmental groups running around with their hands in the air, (which apparently keeps the sky from falling), making false and misleading statements about air quality, water quality and a host of imagined threats. The mistruths they spout spread to other states and embolden environmental naysayers.

The scary arguments are best rebutted at the community level, where people can talk to their neighbors and share experiences. There are dozens of Colorado towns where the drinking water doesn’t burn, and gas wellheads and pipelines safely recover natural gas and direct it to markets where it is needed.

For years, the energy industry has sounded the drumbeat of interesting, well-paying jobs. Yes, energy development means “jobs,” and with the current national and local political campaigns focused on jobs, no one can ignore that appeal. And there’s no question that the number of workers on an average drill site, whether fracking is involved or not, is impressive.

The impact of energy development in any Colorado community is substantial. The roll-over effect has reinvigorated towns like Craig and Fort Morgan, and is the new foundation of Weld County’s economy. But this gets scant attention. Some community opinion experts say the jobs message isn’t enough. So, add new messages — about assuring energy security, and using a resource that doesn’t drive up energy costs, degrade the air, or impact water quality.

The mayors of those small cities and towns, who see sales tax receipts, and the school board presidents who notice their districts benefitting financially, are much more capable of talking about the experiences in their hometowns than a think tank researcher in Boulder, or a lawyer in Denver.

They should be the experts, along with the local energy industry employers.

As the Governor has often pointed out, Colorado has been involved with fracking for decades, and hasn’t suffered ill effects. That’s a message that can be exported to Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and the other Marcellus Formation states. We’re already exporting natural gas, beer and beef to those states — common sense should be our next commodity.

Pete Webb is a public affairs consultant. A former broadcast journalist and award-winning investigative reporter, he has owned a PR firm, served as president of the one-time Colorado Film Commission and is immediate past president of the Special District Assn. of Colorado and a long-time director of two fire districts.