The oil and gas industry’s public image in Colorado

August 16, 2013

Colorado, oil & gas industry

snake oil salesmanHigh Country News associate editor Sarah Gilman attended the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit in Denver last week so we didn’t have to. The event was hosted by the “powerful state trade group,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. I confess I’m not a fan of COGA or HCN. Their middle-of-the-road-lest-we-offend-anyone style of journalism—well—offends me. The quest for fairness often comes at the expense of the facts—as in leaving out certain facts. As you will see in her recap of the soiree, Gilman did not let the facts get in the way of being ever-so-fair to the oil and gas industry.

She does deserve points because she drove all the way from Paonia to Denver and then put up with four days of O&G propaganda.  I attended the NW Colorado Oil & Gas Forum once a couple years ago and I thought my head would explode. Sort of like how I felt after I read Gilman’s post.

To be fair, of course, Gilman provides a glimpse inside the event which I’m sure was worthwhile for all the latte-sucking industry participants. But a whole bunch of questions got tossed around in her post and I couldn’t sleep at night until I answered them (the head exploding thing again). I’ve included only snippets below. Please do read her entire post.

Can the oil and gas industry fix its public image in Colorado?

… Early Wednesday morning, before a slightly groggy, still-trickling-in-with-lattes crowd, Kareiva [Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy] gave a compelling speech on the importance of factoring peoples’ needs into conservation efforts to ensure they’re relevant and effective, and working alongside corporations to minimize the environmental impacts of inevitable industrial development.

Afterward, [COGA President Tisha Conoly] Schuller sat down on stage in an armchair across from the controversial scientist. “One of the things we struggle with is spending a lot of time reacting to … positions we view as extreme, such as banning (hydraulic fracturing),” she began. She was referring to public concern over the possible health impacts of the practice, which involves firing a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a well bore to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons, and the intense local battles it has inspired over the industry’s expansion on the Front Range. “We want to have a dialog that moves to the middle. But the reality is that the press and the meetings are driven by people who have an extreme agenda. What recommendation do you have for us on how we address and interact with that reality?”

Extreme agenda! No more extreme than, say, Colorado county boards, city councils, and town boards banning pot shops after voters in their districts overwhelming voted for legalization. Who the hell ever voted for “the practice of mixing water, sand and chemicals down a well bore to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons”?

It’s ironic how government officials embrace the drilling and fear the weed. Oh, I know, they all say they want to respect federal law—except when it comes to public health, women’s rights, education, guns, property rights, water rights, leasing public lands for oil and gas development …

But I digress.

“Drama (and) conflict sell. But so does vision,” Kareiva replied. “Be visionary.”

Kareiva said this in response to Schuller’s rant about people who talk to the press and come to meetings and have an extreme agenda. So evidently by “drama” he means the stories people tell about living with contaminated water and toxic air pollution from drilling. Health problems like asthma, rashes, tumors, cancers, and mysterious infections. Dead livestock and wildlife. By “conflict” he must mean lawsuits from private citizens who defend their property rights while being driven from their toxic homes. If these people—our friends, relatives, and neighbors—are promoting drama and conflict, I can’t imagine what they could possibly be selling. Maybe they’re selling clean air, clean water, and good health.

By comparison the industry is selling a future dependent upon fossil fuels that contaminate our air and water.

Environmentalists— which I suspect are who they really mean by those people with extreme agendas—are the visionary ones. They see the future in alternative fuels and renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro-power.

What does that mean for an industry that has struggled to define itself as a positive force (it is, after all, responsible for a significant reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as more power plants switch from coal to natural gas), even as fracktivists paint it as a plague on clean water and air, and a scourge on powerless communities?

Well for one thing the link Gilman used leads to an article that’s over a year old and shows the U.S. only reduced emissions by 5% (well behind Europe’s 9% reduction) between 2005 and 2010. Since 2010, oil and gas development has more than doubled across the country, including in Colorado and Utah. And speaking of Utah, the much more current NOAA/CIRES Uintah Basin study begs to differ with such a rosy outlook on greenhouse gas emissions.

Now for the second part of her 60-word question: “fracktivists paint it as a plague on clean water and air, and a scourge on powerless communities.”

Those are photos of well flares on Ursa well pads that I posted on this blog—not paintings. The air pollution is visible and real—not photo-shopped.

Three siblings pad 2-19-13I did not create the Encana/Divide Creek seep, the Suncor/Sand Creek spill, the Williams/Parachute Creek spill, the WPX Energy/Jolley Mesa spill from my imagination. They really happened. Those companies are responsible for groundwater contamination that will take decades and cost millions in remediation.

I have a friend who was a truck driver in the gasfield until he quit his job two months ago. He reads this blog. He said the information helped him realize his job was making him sick. Believe me, nobody paints a picture for this guy. He makes up his own damn mind. We had many heated discussions. But he lived it, he breathed it and he walked away.

As for painting the industry as “a scourge on powerless communities,” it’s simply not possible that tens of thousands of citizens across Colorado and the rest of the country are being mobilized to keep drilling out of their neighborhoods and communities because Yoko Ono told them to.

Communities really ARE powerless in the face of oil & gas drilling—according to actual state laws. The true picture regarding communities is ordinary people becoming educated about the impacts of oil & gas drilling and making up their own minds rather than listening to propaganda spewed by actors in TV commercials.

Now back to the original question which I edited down to this shorter version: What does the whole vision thing mean for an industry that feels its being picked on for contaminating the environment and impacting public health?

I don’t see how they can create a vision for the future from a reality that looks like this.

GarCo gas wellsLet’s see what the industry peeps had to say for themselves.

But when I asked various attendees how the industry might come to the middle itself, many felt that the necessary work was mostly a matter of reassuring concerned members of the public that fracking truly is safe, that oil and gas employees also care about the environment and the safety of their own families, and that hydrocarbons are foundational to society and the basic function of all our lives, from the polypro we wear camping to the gasoline we use to drive our kids to soccer practice. But with the exception of the fracking question, who doesn’t already know those things on some level?

The old “thneed” tactic. We need the thneed and they make the thneed that makes everything and moves everything.

You need what they’re selling and the inevitable side effects are air pollution, water contamination, public health impacts, and environmental degradation. So deal with it. That’s not a very effective PR strategy.

Besides, last time I checked clean air and clean water trump hydrocarbons as the foundational basic function of all our lives.

It’s such a tired, old, dishonest argument to boot. They don’t drill for oil and gas to make polypro or gas for cars. They drill to make billion$ for the industry and themselves. Then they invest those billion$ in making our economy and our society more and more dependent on oil and gas.

Look closely. The vision thing is actually a vicious cycle of greed.

And isn’t presuming to educate condescending?

Yes. It’s called propaganda and they use it all the time. It’s worse than condescending. It’s a tangled legal web of smoke and mirrors laced with half truths and non-disclosure agreements.

Consider the current TV ad running in Colorado, where Anne Kern talks about owning a ranch in Ault, Colorado, and allowing fracking on their land.

According to actual COGCC records, Noble Energy notified Jason and Anne Kern on April 1, 2013, they would commence drilling operations on their land no sooner than May 1, 2013. So even if they have started drilling operations, the Kerns have yet to feel the full impacts of drilling on their land. They’re newbies. All we know for certain is the Kerns drank the industry’s kool-aid and now they’re in for the shock of their lives. But we’ll never hear the rest of that story because the Kerns probably had to sign a non-disclosure agreement like so many others.

Children given lifelong ban on talking about fracking
Two Pennsylvanian children will live their lives under a gag order imposed under a $750,000 settlement

Drillers Silence Fracking Claims With Sealed Settlements

If the industry is sincere about wanting people to like them, they should stop buying their “friends.”

To be really effective, David Ropiek, a former television journalist who now consults on human risk perception and risk communication, suggested in an afternoon presentation, companies must “give up on the idea that just how you communicate to people with words and messages and PR is enough. People take your measure a whole lot more by what you do.”

What they DO is lie. All the time. About everything. The industry’s entire PR campaign is based on lies.

Unfair Share: How Oil and Gas Drillers Avoid Paying Royalties

Big Oil’s Big Lies About Alternative Energy

Food and Water Watch Report Exposes Lies About Oil and Gas Industry Jobs Claims

Even the industry admits they lie all the time:  Lies You Hear in the Oil and Gas Industry

See what I mean?

And then Gilman drank a shot of kool-aid.

Which is why my ears perked when I heard an executive from Noble Energy speak about a $500,000 groundwater monitoring effort in Weld County. The company, one of the largest operators in northeastern Colorado’s Denver-Julesberg Basin, is participating under the auspices of Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Energy Consortium.

The demonstration project would complement new state rules — which call for detailed analysis of groundwater samples taken before and after drilling — with realtime, continuous monitoring of the freshwater aquifer 200 to 300 feet below 10 of Noble’s multi-well pads. The probes won’t test for a suite of specific contaminants, which would be too expensive for broad application and limit the number researchers could screen for, explains Ken Carlson, a CSU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Instead, they will retrieve data on aspects of the water’s basic chemistry such as conductivity that, were they to change, could signal possible contamination and would trigger a deeper analysis.

You see it, too, don’t you? The catch-22. The loophole that’s built into every industry testing model. In this case it’s: “The probes won’t test for a suite of specific contaminants, which would be too expensive for broad application and limit the number researchers could screen for …”

Of course they won’t spend a half million dollars to look for evidence of contamination. That would prove the “extremists” are right. Instead they are going to spend a half million dollars to test water to see if it needs more testing.

The industry is caught up in this endless loop of funding tests and studies that provide only enough evidence to show the need for more tests and more studies.

What’s in it for Noble? “In two words, public trust,” says Manager of Government Relations Chad Calvert. “There are a lot of claims that fracking for oil and gas affects groundwater. Our engineers don’t feel that way, but the public does. This is about trying to show people that these operations can be done safely.”

Noble Energy. Where have we heard of them before?

In 2009, the COGCC found that four Noble Energy wells on the Roan Plateau had H2S levels greater than 100 parts per million (PPM) but did not publish those findings until September 2011, after Silt resident Carl McWilliams filed a complaint with federal OSHA. It was a big fracking deal!

If Gilman had only taken a second to google Noble Energy on her smartphone she would have discovered that Noble Energy tops the list of operators with 28 spills so far this year in Northern Colorado.

Yeah, Noble Energy has a public trust problem all right. And Chad Calvert is a lying liar.

Spilled and released: Oil accidents are no rarity in Northern Colorado

When a Noble Energy crew was working on an oil and gas tank at an organic farm May 29 east of Ault, a worker failed to open a valve correctly.

Soon, a processing equipment backup caused crude oil to spray across more than 150,000 square feet of an organic farm, requiring 240 cubic yards of contaminated soil to be scraped from the cropland …

The reason why the public claims fracking affects the groundwater is because accidents and spills associated with the processes of drilling and fracking actually do result in groundwater contamination. No other operator in Northern Colorado knows that better than Noble Energy.

The reason why nobody trusts the oil & gas industry is because they lie all the time. They’ve been lying for so long they believe their own lies.

In that context, what indeed does it mean for the industry to be visionary? Perhaps it’s as simple as letting go of the constant political wrangling and allowing these questions to be explored and resolved in a public, highly visible way by researchers without their own axe to grind, and then simply addressing the results, instead of denying them. How else will the general public understand what tradeoffs are and aren’t involved in extracting this fuel, and make informed decisions to avoid those that cut the deepest?

Gilman’s last paragraph seems like a rational—dare I say noble—common sense approach, almost as if she just dreamed it up. But she forgot to read what she had written prior to her eureka moment. About how the EPA walked away from studies in Dimock, Penn., and Pavillion, Wyo. She left out the Parker County, Texas study. And she neglected to mention that President Obama’s Climate Change Plan makes no mention of the EPA’s requirement to address greenhouse gas emission standards for the petroleum sector, thereby ignoring the findings in the Uintah Basin study.

For the past decade, countless—I can’t take the time and space to name them all here—independent, peer-reviewed studies have been conducted on water contamination, air pollution, public health, environmental impacts, socio-economic impacts—you name it. All of them denied, suppressed, shelved, ignored, disputed, and covered up.

So what does it mean for the industry to be visionary?

Who cares? We should not be begging industry to meet in the middle. We should have governments—from the federal to state and local—demanding they meet in the middle. We should have regulations that force the industry to use the latest technologies and best management practices to protect public health, air quality, water quality, and the environment.

But that visionary question strays far afield from Gilman’s original question, the title of her post, and presumably her whole premise: Can the oil and gas industry fix its public image in Colorado?

Apparently Gilman thinks the answer is that they can fix their public image by being visionary. But she offers no evidence that the industry is adopting that visionary approach. They can’t be visionary when they consistently mislead the public and remain blind to the facts.

In other words, she didn’t answer her own question. So I will.

Can the oil and gas industry fix its public image in Colorado?


Erie, Colorado

Erie, Colorado

Not as long as there are human beings who live surrounded by gas wells, breathing toxic air emissions, exposed to contaminated water, and coping with raging health problems.

Full on grossness W Divide Creek 6/28/08 Photo courtesy of Journey of the Forsaken

Contamination in West Divide Creek 6/28/08 [Photo courtesy of Lisa Bracken – Journey of the Forsaken]

Not as long as there are ugly, stinking well flares burning 24/7, drill rigs, tank farms, pipelines, wastewater pits, spills, accidents, trucks, trucks, and more trucks.

March 5, 2009 - Condensate spill forces Rifle road closures, evacuations advised

March 5, 2009 – Condensate spill forces Rifle road closures, evacuations advised

These are the public images we see every single day. Not paintings. This is the reality of oil and gas drilling. They can’t re-package the mess they’ve made of people’s lives and the environment.

The oil & gas industry has public image problem in Colorado and they have no one to blame but themselves. They have been hoisted with their own petard.

Tank farm on CR 320

Tank farm on Garfield CR 320

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8 Comments on “The oil and gas industry’s public image in Colorado”

  1. Fiona Lloyd Says:

    yup – that pesky ol’ public image thing. Let’s make sure we focus on that, eh? Maybe more stickers? Or glossy brochures? Or money for statues? Or Public Meetings with free food for the masses (aka the bread and circuses approach)?

    Or maybe they could just use green technology and state of the art emissions capture?

    Although if I were an Oil and Gas company I’d buy politicians who would tell people what they wanted and needed and shape public opinion that way. Oh, wait.

  2. Beth Says:

    Fracking Ban on the Ballot?

    Wouldn’t that be epic?

  3. Anita Marie Says:

    Crap on a stick being sold as ice cream is still crap on a stick.

  4. quippyvirgo Says:

    Amazes me more everyday the amount of bulls*it morons in this country will continue to eat from government and corporations… Sad.

  5. sarahgilman7 Says:

    Hi Peggy–Thanks for your post; it’s a thorough and interesting and thoughtful response to what I wrote. I found it while searching for another article I’ve written. You should have sent it to me at the time. I would have loved to have spoken with you directly for a follow up post. In the time that I’ve covered oil and gas, the industry has scrambled to appear better, and in some cases, has vastly improved from how things used to be. I’m not going to make a value judgement about whether where they are now is a good place, though, or whether they are anywhere near where they should be. Let’s just say that it’s been fascinating to watch, over the last 10 years, how swelling public outcry — fed by industry gaffes and overstep in the early 2000s — has begun to move the needle on policy and on company practices.

    Compare things today to things under the Bush Administration, or in Colorado in the early ’80s, and we are in a very different time indeed. I think a lot of that is because people like you keep pushing. And it makes me wonder, if people like you keep pushing, as you are, how will things look in 10 years? In 20?

    All best and thanks for loving the Western Slope like you do,

    –Sarah Gilman, HCN contributing editor (I typed this on my computer because, actually, I’m quite bad with my smartphone … I still had a basic flip-phone when I wrote this COGA post).

  6. Peggy Tibbetts Says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Glad you stumbled on the post. I am tough on reporters who are “fair” to the industry because I’ve never seen anyone in the industry play fair back. It’s all a game to them so I try to expose that every chance I get. And I use pieces like yours to do that. So thank you. You helped me make my points.

    Funny how that post is over 2 years old and the industry propaganda remains the same. But I do think the people are much more organized and residential fracking is galvanizing huge segments of the population.

    10 or 20 years!? OMG we don’t have 10 or 20 years. I refer you to the front page of this blog. We’re running out of time. Ursa is proposing 53 wells on 2 monster pads in the Battlement Mesa PUD. This is like a death sentence for some of these residents. They have already been dealing with exposure to toxins from the well pads surrounding BM and now it will be in their backyards. And some of them won’t survive.

    That’s the story we need to tell now. The residential drilling/fracking story. It’s horrifying and it’s heartbreaking. And it’s real. It’s costing people their health and livelihoods and even their lives and we are all just collateral damage.

    Sometimes I think we need a miracle.

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