The Dirty Truth Behind Clean Natural Gas

Impacts on the wildlife, air, water, people and scenic value of western public lands expose a dark secret about energy development

  • Paul Tolmé
  • May 14, 2010

OUR SMALL PLANE lifts off an airstrip outside Rifle, rises over the Roan Plateau and heads out above the industrial gas fields of northwestern Colorado. We look down on a web of dirt roads that entangles the sagebrush expanse below. Each road leads to a well pad, a bulldozed dirt patch where diesel-powered compressors, storage tanks and machinery glint in the sunlight. From this height, the gas fields resemble low-density suburban sprawl, with the addition of gleaming pools of toxic wastewater. “Utter destruction,” says pilot Bruce Gordon, whom I have joined for a firsthand look at how energy development is affecting the West.

We are above the Piceance Basin, a 4.5-million-acre geological formation that holds one of the largest natural gas reserves in the Intermountain West. This region was cowboy country until recently, a stark landscape of few people, bountiful wildlife and scenic majesty. But northwestern Colorado underwent one of the nation’s biggest drilling booms of the past 10 years. At least 5,000 wells were drilled in the Piceance from 2000 to 2008. Ordered by the Bush administration to expedite drilling, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—which manages 3.7 million acres in the Piceance Basin—leased 95 percent of its lands surrounding the Roan Plateau, an irreplaceable wildlife haven, to energy-development companies. “There used to be nothing here,” says Gordon, founder of the nonprofit EcoFlight, which provides aircraft for environmental advocates. “Now you can’t look off in any direction without seeing infrastructure.”

Energy sprawl is creeping across public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Dakotas. Nearly 120,000 wells (mostly natural gas) were drilled West-wide during the past decade, and 44 million acres of federal public lands are now leased to energy companies out of 256 million acres overseen by BLM. It is an energy boom bigger than any in the history of the West, and it is scarring some of the nation’s last great wide-open spaces. Wherever gas is drilled, wildlife and its habitat are suffering. Gas fields are spreading noxious weeds, polluting the air and fouling the water. Public lands valued for grazing, hunting, wildlife-watching, recreation and other multiple uses are being converted to single-use industrial zones.

Flying over the Piceance dispels one of the great energy myths of our time: that natural gas is a “clean” fossil fuel. It may burn with relative cleanliness, but getting it out of the ground causes tremendous environmental degradation. And yet, it doesn’t have to be that way. “With just a few changes in how gas is extracted, and a higher concern for long-term environmental and conservation interests on the part of the fossil-fuel industry, we can have clean natural gas that actually is clean,” says Steve Torbit, director of NWF’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center.

Ride a public bus in Los Angeles, New York or Washington, D.C., and you may see signs proclaiming “powered by clean natural gas.” Indeed, natural gas emits less air pollution than coal or oil when burned, leading some states, such as California, to source growing amounts of their electricity from gas-fired power plants instead of coal plants. A quarter of U.S. electricity is now generated with natural gas, and global warming legislation could spur even more demand, because gas emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when burned.

But modern gas drilling is a filthy business. In the old days, oil companies produced natural gas, which was relatively easy to extract, as a by-product of oil drilling in this country. Today, most of the remaining domestic reserves are so-called “unconventional” deposits trapped in shale, coal and sandstone formations. To free the gas, companies pump chemicals, sand and water into the ground under high pressure to fracture, or frac, the rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing fluids contain a toxic cocktail of petroleum distillates—benzene, toluene and other carcinogens (the precise recipe is a trade secret). The fractured formations are then dewatered to release the gas.

In one of the driest regions of the country, groundwater is being polluted, pumped to the surface and dumped into holding ponds to evaporate. No other industry could get away with this, but in 2005 Congress exempted gas drillers from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act by passing the “Halliburton loophole,” inserted into the law at the request of a former Halliburton executive, then vice president Dick Cheney. The 2005 Energy Bill also exempted drillers from storm water runoff provisions of the Clean Water Act. And Congress has provided exemptions from certain provisions of the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act—allowing gas companies to avoid reporting their toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory.

“If natural gas is truly a clean energy, then its extraction shouldn’t need exemptions from environmental laws designed to protect the public,” Torbit says. EPA announced recently that it is reviewing available information to determine whether fracking chemicals have polluted drinking water.

More than a quarter of the drilling permits—about 6,100—approved on BLM lands between 2006 and 2008 were granted under a special “categorical exclusion” rule that eliminates the need for lengthy environmental review. A recent Government Accountability Office report says many of these categorical exclusions were granted improperly. In Wyoming’s gas fields, ozone pollution from diesel-powered machinery has reached levels comparable to those of Houston, the fourth worst U.S. city for ozone pollution. Colorado and New Mexico have passed new laws to address gas-field pollution, but many loopholes remain, says Environmental Working Group analyst Dusty Horwitt, author of the 2009 report Free Pass for Oil and Gas: Environmental Protections Rolled Back as Western Drilling Surges.

“It’s a travesty,” says retired BLM range manager Bob Elderkin, who lives in the Piceance Basin, where some property owners have literally lit polluted creeks on fire.

The Roan Plateau

After the flight, I drive on a rutted dirt road to the top of the Roan Plateau, which rises 3,000 feet above the Colorado River, bounded by sheer cliffs and topped by an oasis of aspen glades and wildflower meadows. Mule deer trot across the road, and I stop to watch a blue grouse flutter into a spruce. Native populations of cutthroat trout live in the Roan’s creeks. Mountain lions and black bears hunt and forage here. Hunters call the Roan the “deer factory” because of its prolific elk and big-game herds.

But the deer factory is facing serious trouble. Despite strong local objection, the Bush administration in 2008 leased all federally administered lands atop the plateau—54,000 acres. The Roan’s BLM lands have not yet been drilled, and conservationists are suing to overturn the fast-tracked lease sale. Locals say drilling would decimate the area’s hunting economy. “My clients won’t come back,” says guide Keith Goddard, who operates a hunting camp atop the Roan. “People come here for the scenery as much as the hunting. Who wants to see trucks and lights and hear compressors going all night?”

Wildlife most affected by gas drilling include greater sage grouse, pronghorn, raptors, mule deer and sagebrush-dependent songbirds, such as the Brewer’s sparrow, sage sparrow and sage thrasher. Gas fields are noisy and disruptive to wildlife. Workers rumble down dusty roads in 18-wheel tanker trucks. Diesel-powered compressors chug 24 hours a day.

Studies in Wyoming show that grouse numbers decline dramatically near wells. A 2009 study by researchers from The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and University of Montana estimates that western sage grouse could decline another 19 percent, in addition to the 40 to 80 percent decline already suffered, if Western gas deposits are heavily drilled. A federal court in Idaho is considering whether the greater sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species. Some conservationists see sage grouse listing as the only way to bring some sanity to gas development.

Bill Dvorak, NWF’s public lands organizer in western Colorado, and I are driving along a country road that parallels Piceance Creek, at the bottom of Roan Plateau. We pass well pads and “man-camps”—trailers, double-wides and temporary housing for itinerant workers. Scars as wide as a four-lane highway parallel the road where companies have laid gas pipelines. We turn up a dirt road and approach the Enterprise gas plant, a cluster of steel buildings and machinery connected by a pretzel of pipes and spewing flames. This is where raw natural gas, which contains butane, propane, mercury, acids and other toxic substances, is purified to extract the desired methane. Once purified, the methane flows from here to interstate pipelines that carry it to population centers. Every large gas field contains one or more of these processing plants, part of the expanding footprint of natural gas. “This used to be all ranchlands through here,” Dvorak says, waving his arm across the expanse of public and private lands that have been industrialized.

Clean It Up

Of BLM lands throughout the West with a potential for natural gas development, about 80 percent have been leased, though, like the Roan, not all have been drilled yet. An energy company has proposed putting 4,000 wells in the Vermillion Basin region in extreme northwestern Colorado, an area conservationists are hoping to keep free of drilling rigs. Vermillion is a proposed wilderness area where peregrine falcons, bald eagles, kestrels and other raptors nest. The basin’s riparian areas provide habitat for canyon tree frogs, kit foxes and pikeminnows. Dinosaur National Monument is nearby, and surrounding Moffatt County is home to 75 percent of the state’s greater sage grouse.

“There are places here where you can’t see the imprint of man,” says Luke Schafer, Northwest Campaign coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. “You can go out for a month and never see another living soul.”

We are standing on a canyon rim looking down into a vast expanse of pinyon-juniper landscape in the Vermillion. Just to the north, in Wyoming, pioneer wagon tracks are still visible. Schafer kicks at the dry soils with his boot heel. “That scuff might still be here 100 years from now.” He adds, “The sensitive soils here won’t survive the heavy impact of drilling.” At other gas fields in Colorado, the potentially toxic Asian weed halogeton is rampant, and Schafer fears it would be introduced in Vermillion.

The Obama administration has indicated that it wants to change how gas drilling is conducted on western public lands, and EPA announced in March that it will investigate possible adverse environmental impacts from hydraulic fracturing. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, announced in January that the administration will initiate stricter environmental controls on oil and gas leases, partly in an effort to stop a barrage of lawsuits against fast-track leases from the Bush years. Prior to 1998, only about 1 percent of oil and gas leases on public lands were contested in court; in 2008, 40 percent led to legal protests, because they were offered in places where they should not have been permitted or were allowed without enough agency scrutiny or public participation, Salazar told the New York Times recently.

“The changes Salazar has announced will prevent some of the abuses that occurred under Bush,” says Kate Zimmerman, NWF senior policy advisor. “But, sadly, at this point the proposed reforms will have little effect on the continuing impacts of oil and gas development, because most of the wildlife habitat in the Rocky Mountain West is already leased. For a real difference in existing leases, we need Congress to eliminate some of the exemptions from bedrock environmental laws, and we need BLM to exercise its existing authority to protect wildlife habitat.”

Until now, the impacts of gas drilling have been relegated to sparsely populated regions. But the public soon will learn more about the dirty side of clean-burning natural gas, because companies have begun drilling in parts of the vast Marcellus Shale deposit that stretches from West Virginia and Ohio through Pennsylvania to New York. “We’re beginning to see more attention being paid to gas drilling from eastern politicians,” says Clare Bastable, deputy director of the Western Energy Project. The New York Times, for example, published several editorials last year on this threat to the city’s water quality. “When you have New York City getting nervous about its water supply being polluted, that’s a lot different than people in Rifle, Colorado, complaining about water pollution,” Bastable says.”

Conservationists urge Congress and the Obama administration to tighten regulations on the gas industry. NWF is pushing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act—the FRAC Act—which was introduced in the Senate last June and would force drillers to disclose their chemical cocktail. “It’s just plain ridiculous that we allow companies to pump toxins into aquifers with no public scrutiny,” Torbit says. In addition to approving the FRAC Act, he contends, Congress also should eliminate exemptions under the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts. To help wildlife, NWF is supporting the America’s Wildlife Heritage Act, which was introduced in the House last June and would require that all wildlife be given strong consideration before drilling can occur.

Finally, Torbit says, companies should be forced to eliminate methane leaks, which waste a precious resource and harm the climate without producing a watt of power. Hundreds of billions of cubic feet of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escape into the atmosphere every year from gas fields and facilities. These rogue emissions undercut the argument that increasing the use of natural gas will be friendlier for the climate.

The footprint of natural gas fields also could be dramatically reduced if directional drilling techniques were required, minimizing the number of well pads and roads. “The nation needs natural gas, and we’re not opposed to all drilling,” Torbit says. “We just want to make natural gas the cleaner fuel that it should be.”

California writer Paul Tolmé is a frequent contributor to National Wildlife.

Boondoggle: Squeezing Oil from Rock?

Of all the schemes to extract fossil fuels from public lands, none is more environmentally and financially questionable than shale oil. Shale is porous sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, a precursor to oil. To extract petroleum, shale must be cooked. In other parts of the world it is strip-mined, crushed and heated, generating heaps of waste and destroying the land surface. New, top-secret technologies being tested by oil companies would cook shale underground (so-called in situ extraction; the photograph above shows an in situ structure at a shale-oil test site in Colorado’s Piceance Basin) by lowering heaters into the earth. “It would take huge amounts of energy. We would be burning coal or gas to produce oil,” says Kate Zimmerman, NWF senior policy advisor in the Rocky Mountain Regional Center. “The industry says it can produce shale oil without a net energy loss, but we don’t know if that is true.”

Shale has a sordid history. In 1982, on a day known as “Black Sunday,” Exxon canceled a massive shale-oil project in northwestern Colorado and fired 2,000 workers. Soon after, the Reagan administration deemed shale-oil production unfeasible and canceled the federal synthetic oil program. But the Bush administration revived shale oil by granting research and development leases to five public parcels in northwestern Colorado and one in Utah, each covering seven square miles. The Obama administration has since backed off, and, at this writing, the administration was investigating favorable terms offered by the Bush administration to the companies. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says shale operations must answer environmental and water-use issues before proceeding. “The Obama administration is not taking oil shale off the table entirely, but they want to make sure we understand the true costs,” Zimmerman says.

One cost is water. For in situ extraction, companies would create massive ice barriers around the shale-oil fields to prevent contamination from spreading into groundwater. Hot water would be pumped into the oil fields to “steam clean” the formations and extract hydrocarbons. In northwestern Colorado, oil companies are buying water rights needed for wildlife, livestock and human consumption. The companies’ water requirements are vast: To develop shale oil commercially in Colorado, according to some estimates, companies would need 400,000 acre-feet of water, more than Denver consumes annually. “That would be like putting a city the size of Denver on Colorado’s West Slope, an arid area that has little water to spare,” Zimmerman says. —Paul Tolmé

NWF in Action

Making Renewable Energy Safe for Wildlife

The federal government is opening renewable-energy-permitting offices in multiple western states to expedite projects. NWF strongly supports renewable-energy production but stresses that facilities must be sited carefully to minimize wildlife impacts. For example, with 1,000 turbines covering 98,000 acres (150 square miles), the proposed 2,000-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, located on Bureau of Land Management lands south of Rawlins, Wyoming, would be the nation’s largest wind farm, generating electricity comparable to a large coal-fired power plant. But its size and location highlight a major challenge: how to develop renewable energy on public lands without wrecking wildlife habitat.

The wind farm would trample Red Desert lands used by greater sage grouse, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, raptors, multiple sage-dependent songbirds and other wildlife. Its footprint would be as harmful as major gas fields nearby: 470 miles of roads, some of them 85 feet wide, would be bulldozed into the arid landscape to erect massive turbines and install infrastructure. Wind-farm proposals are booming on public lands in the West, which are also being eyed for solar and geothermal energy. Multiple solar farms are proposed for the sunny triangle between Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas—an area that contains threatened desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoises. “As we promote renewable energy we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry,” says NWF Senior Policy Advisor Kate Zimmerman. “Sage grouse don’t care whether it’s an oil-and-gas field or a wind farm.”

NWF has been involved for several years in the fight to protect western public lands, including work with the Western Governors Association on a renewable-energy siting-zones initiative. “NWF’s position is to identify areas with the fewest wildlife conflicts and that are outside core habitat areas,” says Zimmerman. For instance, the ranchlands of eastern Wyoming contain fewer pristine qualities and wildlife than the Red Desert. Zimmerman says NWF has no position on the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre project, but “it may be tough for us to support a project of this size in a core area for a species [greater sage grouse] being considered for endangered species listing, unless the wildlife impacts are addressed.” For interactive maps of pending and approved solar-, wind- and geothermal-project leases on public lands (as well as maps of oil and gas fields), go to the GeoCommunicator website and click on “Energy Map.” For more information on NWF’s activities, visit the Public Lands page. —Paul Tolmé


Safeguarding Wildlife and Habitat: Policy Solutions 
Faces of NWF: Steve Torbit, director of NWF's Rocky Mountain Regional Center

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