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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 4/30/10

Bill Barrett Corp and the Halliburton Loophole Threaten Rockies

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Since Earth Day is so last week's news, we can get back to examining the fossil fuel industries' numerous recent contributions to the environment. BP's deadly oil rig fiasco is a hot news topic since it is leaking 42,000 gallons of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico and now threatens the Louisiana coast. But there have been a slew of other recent spills from oil, gas and coal operations that typify the constant pollution problem with fossil fuels.

The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing to get at hard-to-reach hydrocarbon supplies has lots of folks wondering whether the next fossil fuel disaster might happen in the Rocky Mountains or elsewhere at the hands of the fracking natural gas industry. The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing - blasting a mixture of toxic chemicals, sand and water into rock formations to break apart rock and release hydrocarbons - is now used in some 90 percent of extraction projects targeting unconventional shale gas and coalbed methane in the U.S.

Increasing reliance on such techniques nationwide has heightened concern among citizens living near these projects, who fear the fracking could have devastating consequences for drinking water supplies.

There are plenty of documented examples of fracking operations contaminating water supplies that provide reason to worry. From Pennsylvania, to New York, to Wyoming, to New Mexico, to Ohio, to Virginia, to Arkansas, to Colorado, many families have watched their drinking water supplies fall victim to contamination thanks to hydraulic fracturing. Some have faced the grim discovery that the formerly pristine water entering their homes is, in several documented cases, flammable due to high levels of methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas. Yes, flammable tap water, brought to you by the natural gas industry.

For example, natural gas drilling has wrecked the drinking water supplies of at least 15 families in the northern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, where Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas targets Marcellus Shale. The problem first came to light when Dimock resident Norma Fiorentino's water well famously blew up on New Year's Day 2009, tossing shards of an 8-foot concrete slab onto her lawn. The source of the explosion was methane buildup thanks to Cabot's fracking operations.

This month, in one of the largest punitive actions in Pennsylvania DEP history, the agency fined Cabot $240,000, ordered it to cap three of its active wells, and to permanently provide drinking water to 14 of the affected families.

That's a step in the right direction, although Cabot's cavalier response to the residents when the contamination problems surfaced was pretty horrifying:

"When our drinking water became contaminated with methane, we asked Cabot what to do. They said, 'Oh, let it sit for thirty seconds 'til the bubbles settle down, then you can drink it,'" Dimock resident Jean Carter said last Monday. "But I didn't feel good for a long time; I felt light-headed and dizzy, with a lot of headaches. My health went down." Carter said she and her husband Ronald spent $6000 for water filtration systems for their household and their son's household. But even that was inadequate to protect their health. The family was forced to bring all its drinking water in from elsewhere.

Water contamination from hydraulic fracturing isn't the only threat of natural gas extraction, there are oil spills and damage to wildlife habitat and cultural resources to deal with as well.

Earlier this month, Bill Barrett Corporation (NYSE: BBG), a Denver-based natural gas drilling outfit, reported an oil spill into Utah's Nine Mile Creek from its Dry Canyon Compressor Station. Barrett Corp claims to have found no evidence of water pollution outside the affected area, though it took the company two days to "contain" the spill. Or did they?

A spokesman for the Utah Division of Oil Gas & Mining dubbed it "an unfortunate little spill," and acknowledged that the source of the seepage has yet to be identified.

"The leakage certainly traveled downstream, but they were able to contain it, although our department does not yet know if they found the source."

The spokesman reiterated that there should be no major environmental damage, "as long as they locate the source of the leak."

How can the spill be considered "contained" if neither Barrett nor local officials know what the source of the spill was? Regardless, an "unfortunate little spill" is still a spill. Will "those mistakes" happen on the Roan?

The Sun Advocate, a local newspaper, notes that, "Ironically, the incident took place shortly after the Barrett Corp. was recently given a wildlife award
in Moab."

Adding to the farce, Bill Barrett Corp spokesman Jim Felton had the nerve to tell Colorado newspaper The Daily Sentinel that his company doesn't make "those mistakes" and would never spill anything on Colorado's Roan Plateau, fully four days after his company had discovered oil spilling into Utah's Nine Mile Creek.

Bill Barrett spokesman Jim Felton said past spills around the plateau took place because of operator error.

"We're not going to make those mistakes," he said, citing the decades of experience company personnel have in the area.

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Brendan DeMelle is a freelance writer and researcher. He has served as Research Associate for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., researcher for Laurie David and and others. He graduated from St. Lawrence University with a BA in (more...)
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