DENVER (CN) – The Colorado petroleum industry claims fracking isn’t just good for the economy, it’s good for the planet. Skeptics may be quick to call it the pitch of snake oil salesmen, but there are others who see the potential for innovation in a market that demands sustainable products.
“The oil and gas industry is in a real bind,” said Benjamin Hale, associate professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They have a uniquely difficult challenge before them, to navigate with regard to environmental sustainability because if they really went sustainable, they would stop extracting nonrenewable resources.”
After passing regulations that hinge new well permits on the promise of reducing industry impact on human health and the environment, the Centennial State effectively offered up its pastures for proving grounds.
The restructuring of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is a compromise between actors like Democratic Governor Jared Polis, whose political career was built on opposing fracking operations too close to his home, and the multibillion-dollar industry that contributed more than $990 million to state government in 2017 through fees and taxes.
Colorado produced the fifth most natural gas nationwide in 2018, on top of 177,817 barrels of crude oil. The industry employs an estimated 200,000 people locally to extract, refine, transport and sell petroleum.
Before the law change, the commission’s primary responsibility was to foster oil and gas development. Its current mission is to regulate extraction “in a manner that protects public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources.”
Even without government intervention, some industry players say they’ve been watching out for the environment for as long as Earth Day has been on the calendar.
“We along with the rest of the country developed an environmental ethic back in the 60s and 70s,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a pro-oil group with members spanning from Washington state down to New Mexico. “That’s part of our core. I think the key to protecting the environment comes with technological innovation.”
She added: “One of the biggest advances was horizontal drilling because it shrinks the footprint on land and more and more companies are moving towards centralized facilities.”
If one measures environmental impact by what the naked eye can see, then horizontal drilling might look like it does the least amount of damage. Hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking – extracts resources from beneath Earth’s crust by pumping in pressurized water, sand and chemicals to break apart rock.
An extraction company can quietly operate 15 wells on one site for 30 years, siphoning the oil and gas flowing through rocks miles away. Many operators further shrink their surface footprint by storing 45,000-pound boxes of sand on trucks and transporting oil via pipeline to centralized processing facilities.
Instead of the loud diesel engines of the past, quiet fleets and electric pumps run 24/7 under bright LED lights within sound barriers 40 feet tall.
In past years, operators painted equipment to blend in with the landscape to eliminate “visual pollution.” Now operators build sites to disappear once they’re tapped out and filled in.
Volunteers for the nonprofit Earthworks invested in two FLIR GF320 infrared cameras to measure and report gas leaks in and around Weld County. While Colorado only issued penalties for a fraction of the incidents reported in 2018, the activists say collecting data helps them educate their community.
“When the oil and gas pollution is invisible, the industry can deny it is happening,” explained Nathalie Eddy, a Colorado field advocate for Earthworks. “If you see with your naked eye the pollution, there would never have been a fracking boom.”
Although it’s obvious to see the oil and gas industry making improvements where it’s easy to look, there are other reasons for the emphasis on surface-level changes.
“We are a phenomenally technically competent industry in the sense that it’s a trillion plus-dollar industry that has to operate in 10,000-foot deep water, that has to be able to reach the depths in the Earth of 20,000 feet,” said Jennifer Miskimins, petroleum engineering director at the Colorado School of Mines.
“You can’t do that by doing things that have been done the same way all the time,” Miskimins said. “But we make the changes slow to make sure that they are not going to be down the wrong road.”
Changing elements of the hydraulic fracture treatment design, for example, is risky for financial investments and worker safety.
“Big picture, I think it’s more risky to make downhole changes and a lot less risky to make the surface changes,” Miskimins said. “I would have no qualms whatsoever of trying different trucks that might use less energy as long as they can give me the horsepower. From the design standpoint of what the frack is going to be looking like and creating, I would use caution and change fluids slowly.”
From using less water to digitizing records and changing light bulbs, it’s easy to find environmental improvements where they increase efficiency or reduce production costs. That’s not to say engineers aren’t looking to improve downhole operations, but as Miskimins said, those changes pose challenges both technical and economic.
One company, ESal, claims it can double the amount of oil extracted from a well while eliminating surfactants from the fracking cocktail. The secret is in the salt: ESal adjusts the salinity of the water pumped into the earth instead of using soapy chemicals so that less oil sticks to the rock.
Geoffrey Thyne, ESal’s chief technology officer, estimated most operators only extract a third of the available resources from a given well. Getting more oil out of existing wells decreases the need for new wells, he argued.
“One of our goals was to be as green as possible, and that sounds impossible, [but] what we do is we specifically change the wettability of the rock of the reservoir,” Thyne explained.
Thyne said getting more operators to use his product in the field means convincing the industry not only that it works, but that it’s worth the investment.
“No one wants to be first, everybody wants to be second. They want somebody else to take the risk,” he said.
Many activists have a hard time swallowing the notion that extracting more oil is a sustainable solution since producing more fossil fuels means using more fossil fuels.
“If we’re planning on a world that is livable and not having major ecological impact, climate feedback mechanisms start at 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperature,” said Devon Reynolds, an activist with Extinction Rebellion, a global group trying to stop climate change.
“Every International Panel on Climate Change report that comes out is more dire and gives us a shorter timeline and I think that a lot of people just aren’t aware of how quickly things are changing and how quickly we have to make this transition,” Reynolds said about the United Nations report that quantifies the need for global reductions in carbon emissions.
Reynolds is doing her dissertation on systems changes at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and crashed Gov. Polis’s State of the State address this year to advocate for a no-frack future.
Although Polis committed the state to use 100% renewable energy by 2040, most of its energy still comes from coal and natural gas.
“It is not right to say we don’t need energy,” said Hale, of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “There may be much better ways of getting energy, but we have to be honest about how that will tax the system.”
Instead of trying to develop a measurement of environmental impact, Hale suggested using the rhetoric of trespassing to find common ground.
“We have to be serious about addressing these problems as a collective, and not just insist that either it’s jobs or the environment or insist that no amount of pollution is permissible,” he said. “I think we can resolve some of our environmental conflicts by finding better channels for us to adjudicate conflicts, because we can probably arrive at something like a compromise.”
As notions of what is good for the environment differ, all parties agree the clock is ticking. Instead of asking whether the oil and gas industry is technically capable of change, the better question might be whether it can change quickly enough.