Reflections from the 2013 Natural Gas Symposium
To [frack], or not to [frack]—that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. Hamlet’s soliloquy came to life at the 2013 Natural Gas Symposium in Fort Collins in October, when leaders, students, elected officials, industry experts and citizens gathered to learn and discuss the theme Doing Energy Right. The Symposium, organized by Colorado State University including the Center for the New Energy Economy and School of Global Environmental Sustainability, presented the diverse social, economic, and environmental aspects of the natural gas industry; videos from the conference are available online. Key conversations in water quantity, air quality, climate, fracking and public policy were addressed and are discussed in more detail below.
Concerned citizens and environmentalists argue natural gas extraction uses precious water resources, which may be irresponsible given our unpredictable snow pack, water supply, and drought conditions. Industry points out that less than .1% of water consumption in Colorado is attributed to oil and gas (the majority goes to agriculture); and reuse and recycling of waste water in extraction operations is increasing and becoming a best practice to save water and costs.
All stakeholders acknowledged that air quality impacts of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Nitrous Oxides (NOx) in extraction operations need to be studied further. In addition, the need for reducing fugitive emissions to avoid excess methane leaching into the atmosphere at extraction sites is imperative—Governor Hickenlooper has set a goal of 0 fugitive emissions in Colorado. CSU is currently conducting two studies in the Northern Front Range and Garfield County on air pollution from oil and gas operations, but the studies will not be complete for another few years. Additional studies are also needed on the implications of these emissions on public health—from cancer, to asthma, to other non-cancer ailments.
On one hand, natural gas (methane) releases less carbon dioxide into atmosphere than coal when it is burned, which could make it a viable transition fuel as the EPA develops is Carbon Pollution Standards. On the other hand, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I just released the report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis and confirms that methane is 75x more potent than carbon dioxide, which is much more potent than previously anticipated, and therefore the need to avoid fugitive emissions in any natural gas operation is paramount in strategies to reduce carbon emissions. It was noted that renewables like solar and wind still release less greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than natural gas. Given these variables, actors at the symposium had diverse opinions on whether natural gas should function as a transition or destination fuel in addressing climate change.
Fracking: Inquiries into Community & Public Policy
On one side concerned citizens show 20 second videos of sink water lighting on fire as a result of fracking disasters and present valid concerns about health and the environment; while on the other side a highly technical industry struggles to communicate its science and operations to the public and acknowledges that 97% of operations run smoothly. Given these differences, many speakers at the symposium promoted dialogue and the willingness to compromise for all stakeholders in natural gas operations. Despite these ideologies of dialogue, many communities in Colorado have brought the fracking issue to the ballot. In early November, voters in Boulder, Lafayette, and Fort Collins passed bans or moratoriums on fracking, while a similar initative in Broomfield lost by as little as 13 votes. These ballots will now be caught up in litigation against the State of Colorado—since there is mixed concern for cities and the State, do either have the legal right to ban fracking? As the symposium came to an end, the reality rang that natural gas is a part of our economy for the time being, and it is unclear how this Shakesperean play will end. However, it is clear that Colorado Citizens will continue to debate what ‘tis nobler in the mind about natural gas for decades to come.