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.