Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Colorado's Cities Should Do About Fracking

The boom in oil shale and natural gas development caused by new fracturing and
horizontal drilling techniques has largely been a good thing. It's
helping America achieve that Holy Grail of "energy independence."

But here in Colorado, it has a lot of bad implications for cities. We
all know that the U.S. Constitution cedes anything it doesn't
specifically reserve for the Federal government to the
states. Likewise, anything not specifically reserved by the Colorado
constitution gets ceded to the counties and cities. So, I believe
Governor Hickenlooper when he says that our constitution specifically
allows energy development in our state on land belonging to those
who own the mineral rights.

But in our cities, a small proportion of the residents own the mineral
rights under their houses. It would be prohibitively expensive for
cities to try to buy back those mineral rights for their citizens.

Some cities, such as Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Longmont, and
Broomfield, have declared moratoriums on drilling within their limits,
until more information can be found about the possible air and water
quality hazards of fracking. Likewise, Boulder County has declared a
moratorium. The governor thinks that is probably unconstitutional. The
courts are being called upon to decide.

But if homeowners can't keep people from drilling under their
property, what can they do? They get pegged as left-wingers without
proper scientific portfolio, cherry-picking horrors such as those
portrayed in the documentary, "Gasland."

Sure, Boulder has some million dollar houses and millionaires, but
much of that wealth is invested in their homes. In effect, they are all
just leasing the land their homes sit on. If the mineral rights owner
decides to foul somebody's nest and move on, what recourse is there?

The key word here is "penalties." Colorado has instituted stricter
penalties for air and and water pollution by energy companies. But it
doesn't have the budget to monitor every square inch of the
state. With horizontal drilling, bores can be 10,000 feet underground,
making leaks hard to detect. Furthermore, a fine can be considered
"the cost of doing business" as long as profits continue to pour in.

If cities institute their own penalties, they could fund the
resources needed to inspect for illegal emissions. Of course, there's
the chicken-and-egg problem of funding the resources before the
presumed fines would occur. By instituting larger fees for frackers, the
initial funding could be obtained.  Boulder County already has
excellent water monitoring capabilities, so this might be done quite
economically. Any penalties would need to be BIG, though. Not just
thousands of dollars, but millions. That's what a house or two in the city of
Boulder costs.

There's also the problem of water, and fracking requires a lot of
it. Clean water's in short supply in Colorado, so any use of clean
city water by frackers needs to be paid for. So far, they're not very good
at cleaning and recycling the water they use for fracking.

We've seen California set the standard for gasoline mileage in car
fleets, and that has trickled up to the Federal government. We should
do the same regarding fracking in our communities, until the Feds pass
legislation that ensures private property rights. (Boulder has beaten Los
Angeles on this one. They just passed a fracking moratorium too.)

Would we be infringing on the property rights of private corporations?
Maybe, but we've had no problem doing that before. Ford Motor Company
was free to manufacture Ford Pintos, but when they burst into flames
upon being rear-ended, they were withdrawn from the market. Bad
publicity and fearful penalties can accomplish wonders.

One last aside: If you look at a picture of North Dakota at night taken from space
(image from the Suomi NPP satellite, NASA Earth Observatory), you see huge
amounts of natural gas being burned off. Are we producing too much, in our rush
to make money?

We should consider oil a strategic resource, and not engage in
greedily exporting it abroad or repeating the Teapot Dome
scandal. Instead, we should encourage and subsidize alternative energy
development to reduce our unhealthy diet of fossil fuels, a primary
contributor to America's growing array of chronic illnesses--its energy
"metabolic syndrome," if you will.

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