Monday, February 4, 2013

The Map Forward

By Jeff Briggs, CHC Board of Director
(2012 Directors Report, Part 2 of 3)

This has been a noteworthy year in several respects. BP admitted guilt in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/Macondo oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and will pay a $4.5 billion dollar fine, while several of their corporate members are facing criminal charges. This year is also on pace to be the warmest ever in the USA, capping 16 years of gradually rising temperatures. And 2012 is in third place, at the moment, among the six worst wildfire years in the USA. Meanwhile, many speak of our current multi-year drought in the American southwest as being ‘Anasazi’ in its impact, meaning it could drive farmers and ranchers from their land.

An appropriate response requires us to immerse ourselves in the ground truths and connect to what actually is happening.  I want to present a map going forward based on the fact that global warming is being exacerbated by human activity, particularly by the burning of fossil fuels, and that oil and gas development not only contributes significantly to global warming, but it also puts at risk the water we drink and the air we breathe.

While natural gas is cleaner burning than oil or coal, we have to balance that benefit against the fact that virtually all new oil and gas development in the USA uses hydraulic fracturing, which requires massive amounts of water, and the fact that water used for hydraulic fracturing cannot be re-used because it is too contaminated, and the fact that air pollution, water pollution and earthquakes are beginning to happen as a consequence of increased oil and gas development. As you may know, any oil and gas development in the USA that uses hydraulic fracturing is exempted from environmental protections like the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to the Halliburton Loophole.

At the very minimum, and as a matter of public safety, the Halliburton Loophole should be closed, and the emissions from oil and gas development, including fracking, should be reduced to their absolute minimums. More ambitious would be the planned transition to renewable energy and the sun setting of the fossil fuel industry, with carbon taxes accelerating to enforce that sunset, precisely as Germany is already doing.

Closer to home, let’s look at the water situation in the Huerfano River drainage.  The #3 ditch and several other water rights on the Huerfano are now owned by Shell, which plans to use the water for its oil and gas operations. The #3 went out of priority for a brief time this past summer as a consequence of the current drought.  All water rights on the Huerfano except the #1 & #2 were shut down, affecting just about all of the drainage, including water for Gardner.  If the drought continues, this will happen again.

Of course water is necessary for oil and gas operations.  But Shell’s water rights by law also include the provision that it must always put back into the Huerfano River an amount of water equal to the average yearly historical agricultural use.  The state water engineer monitors that use through its local representative, Ray Garcia, who also happens to also be one of our newly-elected county commissioners.  In Ray’s response to CHC’s pre-election questionnaire, and in our local media, he indicates that the State engineer has the final say on this, apparently abdicating the county commissioners’ responsibility to oversee historical use thru the 1041 regulation process (which will kick in some time in April, 2013).  Issues for CHC include whether and how to educate the commissioners, monitor the water flow data, and/or testify at the 1041 hearings.  We also might need to document any water damage occurring at the Freeman well.

In another development, on December 2, 2012 (after this presentation), oil and gas regulations for the county will be presented by the current commissioners for comment at a public hearing.  As proposed they are weak and lack authority.  An opportunity will exist to advocate for substantive change, if not now, then after the new commissioners take office in January 2013.

In addition, the continuation of the lawsuit centering on the Klikus well has broad implications not only for Huerfano County but also on state and national levels.  First, it has stopped the drilling of the dangerous Klikus well. The COGCC is apparently rubber stamping a huge volume of permits on the assumption that oil and gas companies are giving COGCC correct information. As we have learned in our litigation, the oil and gas companies get things wrong, and COGCC isn't doing enough oversight to catch the errors.  If we win the lawsuit, the COGCC will have to follow its own minimal rules for due diligence in permitting wells, and it may begin to put more emphasis on its legal mandate to protect the health of the state’s citizenry—a protection we feel the COGCC has neglected.

Finally, our lawsuit asks for constitutional due process, because citizens currently cannot get any notice of new oil and gas activity, unless they know how to find drilling permit applications on the COGCC website. This method of public notice is ineffective, and it doesn’t allow citizens to provide any meaningful comment. Nor are citizens allowed to ask for a public hearing on drill permits, because of a Colorado Supreme Court ruling last year on another lawsuit (Grand Valley Citizens Alliance v COGCC). Public hearings can be called for by citizens in many other situations in Colorado and they are an important official mechanism for presenting evidence, cross examining witnesses and creating a public record.

Because of the lack of due process, our only recourse is through the Courts, since there is no other meaningful way for us to be heard and taken seriously. It should be quite interesting to see what the judge does with our case, and any decisions about continuing it will be paramount in 2013.

Perhaps of even greater importance is to create a collective statewide voice to confront the dangers and the damage associated with fracking and with the state’s current lax approach to oil and gas development. We can focus solely on our own situation or we could help create a statewide coalition to join the battle.

A statewide coalition might pressure elected Colorado State officials for new legislation and help support other communities that are taking local action. For example, the town of Longmont recently voted 60-40% to ban fracking within city limits and is now being sued for doing so by COGA (the Colorado Oil and Gas Association). Many other communities are thinking of following Longmont’s example. If other towns and/or counties do ban fracking, it will bring more attention to the need for better local and state level legislation.  CHC has the experience and the knowledge to possibly lead this fight.  The question is does it have the will, the clarity, and the energy to do so.

Nationally, New York State is debating whether to be the first state in the nation to ban fracking.  Governor Cuomo says he wants to make a decision based on the science and ground truth.  He is being advised directly by Robert Kennedy Jr. among others to do so.  Mr. Cuomo is also thought to be interested in running for President in 2016.

Also nationally, a sustainable energy coalition is forming around Bill McKibben of, Be The Change, Josh Fox (director of Gasland), and other groups.  The question for us is, does CHC want to entertain such a connection?

Political courage to base our policy and action on truth and on our well-being as opposed to joining the gold rush is a prerequisite for any human adult in this struggle.  The question is:  Do we as citizens of this country and the world have the courage and energy to do this?

Also see:

Oil and Gas Status Update by Keli Kringel & Barb Kowalik, Directors Report, Pt 1

CHC Accomplishments by Judy Fisher, Directors Report, Pt 3


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