Feature

Beneath the Surface

The United States holds enough oil and gas to power the country for hundreds of years, and Colorado is at the center of the search for energy resources. Using a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—and new drilling techniques, oil and gas companies are able to extract these previously inaccessible fossil fuels. These technologies may be the biggest step yet toward securing our energy independence. But at what cost?

December 2012

Making the Rules

Why the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate fracking.

It may come as a surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the key federal department tasked with protecting our environment—does not regulate hydraulic fracturing. In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which, among other things, exempted fracking from the rules of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The provision was tacked onto the energy bill in the middle of the night, says U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver. By the time the act came to a vote, DeGette says few legislators realized the exemption existed. 

The provision is known as the “Halliburton loophole.” (Former Vice President Dick Cheney,
a one-time Halliburton executive, helped draft it.) The White House cited a 2004 EPA report that said fracking posed “little or no risk” to drinking water. DeGette and others have since questioned that document. In May of last year, Ben Grumbles, an EPA official who signed off on the report, wrote, “EPA, however, never intended for the report to be interpreted as a perpetual clean bill of health for fracking or to justify a broad statutory exemption from any future regulation.” In every session of Congress since 2006, DeGette has introduced the FRAC Act, to close the loophole. “There are some people who say that fracking should be banned,” she says. “I’m not in that camp. I think there should be appropriate environmental controls.” 

The EPA is currently conducting a new hydraulic fracturing study, due in 2014; An early report hits this month.

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The Boss Man

Four questions for Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

What is the biggest challenge the COGCC faces? 

Fulfilling the [twofold] legislative mandate that we have: The last 60 years, the state General Assembly has said it is in our best interests to produce these resources—but that it must be done responsibly. I don’t want to say they’re internally inconsistent, but they require us to balance two different interests. 

How is your relationship with the oil and gas companies?

They run the gamut from the most sophisticated, biggest, and well-capitalized to small, undercapitalized mom-and-pop-type operations. Our relationship with them varies. Some operators work to the highest standard, hire the most competent people, the best contractors, and are very attuned to their social responsibilities; we generally have a good relationship with them. 

How do you handle social upheaval and address citizen concerns?

There are inherent incompatibilities with having an industrial activity close to a school or an area like that. At the same time, I don’t see evidence of the dramatic health effects some citizens allude to. With respect to hydraulic fracturing, the chemicals used are essentially familiar.
Diesel fumes are a significant product of multistage fracking. We understand the concerns, but diesel emissions are somewhat ubiquitous in an industrial world. We all are exposed to diesel from traffic, trains, and other sources. There are benzene emissions from automobiles, or the gasoline pump. I don’t mean to dismiss citizens’ concerns. But I think they need to be put into the context of everyday life in a world that’s highly modernized. I would not choose to live 350 feet from an oil and gas well. But I would not be concerned about my health or my children’s health.

Have you heard the suggestion that this situation resembles Rocky Flats?

I think it’s apples and oranges. Everyone knew then that plutonium was not good. Oil and gas—it’s not plutonium. Benzene: It is known to be a carcinogen, but it doesn’t persist in the environment the same way plutonium does. I understand that people can say that we can’t understand the long-term. [But] we’ve been bringing oil and gas out of the ground since the late 1800s. We’ve figured out how to do this.

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