Wyoming ranchers look at the Exxon acquisition, the T. Boone Pickens Tour, and the weird marriage between some environmental groups and the forces of anti-regulation and see both a massive potential threat for ground water pollution and property encroachment not seen since the Indians lost their lands to the cavalry. From their point of view, one powerful polluting industry is being favored at their enormous personal, environmental and economic expense. They insist that rosy presentation of "cleaner burning" natural gas ignores and excludes accounting for enormous negative impacts of its extraction.
Nationally, powerful forces are lined up to support expanded natural gas, which threatens to drain the money and momentum out of the efforts to establish renewable energy. And, in the process, leave these cowboys as the poster children for environmental injustice.
Loads of "green" public relations from oil companies have already been trucked up to Capitol Hill in the quest for subsidies, tax breaks and most importantly minimal regulation of natural gas. Hearings extolling the virtues of Natural Gas were held this fall in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
T. Boone Pickens and the industry are now spending millions on a PR blitz for natural gas according to the New York Times.
Pickens has also helped write two bills now pending in Congress that would grant large tax subsidies to natural gas vehicles and to a network of new filling-stations. The House version, HR 1835, sponsored by Rep. Boren of Oklahoma, would require the federal government to power 50% of its vehicle fleet with natural gas by 2014. The Senate companion version, which was presented by Sen. Harry Reid with Mr. Pickens standing next to him, doesn't include the fleet provision but keeps the tax subsidies. These massive subsidies could not help but have an impact on competing, more renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Government incentives will give one the competitive edge.
At the core of this clash lies the fate of "fracking" in
natural gas wells. If this
issue ever gets to the floor of Congress, the marriage between some "green"
elements and the oil companies may get even weirder.
Presently, hydraulic fracturing is completely outside any regulation pertaining to the danger of the chemicals. The chemical solutions used in the "fracking" water, made by companies like Haliburton and Schlumberger, are protected trade secrets thanks to Bush-era rulings on proprietary confidentiality. Back when it was merely a few hundred thousand ranchers and residents whose way of life was being ruined in Wyoming, Colorado and the Mountain West, they got away with it. Will the same be true when it reaches the Marcellus Shale that sits atop the water supply of millions in New York City? Is the Sierra Club going to lobby on behalf of the "Haliburton exception" to the Clean Water Act? Concern about these methods caused Rep. Henry Waxman's House Energy Committee to hold a recent hearing on "fracking."
And the backlash against Big Green over their garbled message has started in earnest. The Nation carries an article (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100322/hari ) by Johann Hari that attacks "Big Green" for conflict of interest by allegedly taking money from polluting industries like coal, gas and chemical manufacturers in return for "cover" on a range of issues, and a duplicitous role in climate and pollution legislation.
Clearly, oil companies want "fracking" to remain outside the scope of any regulations. In Security and Exchange Commission filings, Exxon reserves the right to back out of their $29 billion XTO deal if Congress or the Federal government steps in to regulate hydraulic fracturing.
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing have legislation of their own pending in Congress. First is the House bill (H.R. 2766) from Reps. Degette (D-CO) and Hinchey (D-NY) and one in the Senate (S.1215) sponsored by Senators, Schumer, (D-NY) and Casey (D-PA). Support for the "Fracking" regulations comes from grassroots environmental and agricultural groups like the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Powder River Basin, and local agricultural and environmental groups in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado.
Sacrificing a greener economy will not be the only
consequence of this push for natural gas. While many environmental issues seem abstract and
distant, the boom in drilling for natural gas will get the attention of home
and landowners across America, including suburban Fort Worth, Texas.
If a landowner doesn't control the mineral rights under their house, land, or farm, then the landowner has little ability to stop an oil company from drilling on their land, building roads, laying pipe-lines, erecting tanks, compressor stations, and infrastructure they deem necessary to access their "mineral rights", even if those mineral rights are on your doorstep. How far gas drillers will take their present legal ability is on display in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming where life-long, conservative Republican ranchers now refer to their home region as "an area of national sacrifice."
Perhaps the "clean burning" promise of natural gas can be partially realized, but not without vastly stricter regulation and a thorough analysis of every step of the extraction process. And should the present oil industry campaign, aided by some big environmental groups be allowed to derail the development of a renewable energy industry? As of now, the billions of dollars at stake make this "bridge fuel" pretty shaky to cross.
(Todd Darling is a Los Angeles based documentary filmmaker. To hear Wyoming ranchers and their experience with natural gas exploration go to: www.asnowmobileforgeorge.com