The fracking story comes closer to home

Tips for covering the energy boom in Colorado and beyond

PROVO, UT — On Monday, The New York Times wrote about an “unlikely resistance” building in “energy-friendly” Greeley, CO. “As [oil and gas] companies here and across the energy-rich West look for new places to drill,” reported the Times’s Jack Healy, “they are increasingly looking toward more densely populated areas, and bumping into environmentalists and homeowners.”

Forty-five minutes northwest of Greeley, in Fort Collins, people once thought that oil and gas extraction and the questions it raises about environmental hazards were concerns for elsewhere, according to Fort Collins Coloradoan reporter Bobby Magill. While oil drilling has been going on in this part of the state for decades, in recent years oil rigs have started showing up near residential areas and, in February, an area well blew out, sending a gusher of oil and hydraulic fracturing chemicals into the sky near homes and families.

Colorado is now ground zero for the western energy boom. In 2012, oil production in the state reached its highest level in 55 years. Natural gas production increased by 27 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas exploration and production. As energy development has taken off in this region, the Coloradoan’s Magill has provided essential reporting on the topic. His work ought to serve as a model for other reporters on this beat in the West and beyond.

After a recent conversation with Magill—and another with Andrew Wineke, until recently a business reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette—I’ve pulled together a list (and it’s just a starting point) of what reporters tasked with covering this story should read up on and watch for.

1. Understand the process—and potential public health risks—of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”

The technique has opened up access to oil and gas underground and is largely responsible for the current energy boom in places like Pennsylvania, New York, North Dakota, and now Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

In the hydraulic fracturing process, fluid and proprietary chemicals are inserted in the ground to create fissures so hard-to-get-to natural gas and oil can be extracted from the ground. The process uses a vertical drill, protected by casings, and then turns horizontal to reach oil. Here’s an illustrative video associated with the great storytelling of Edwin Dobb in National Geographic’s March digital edition:

The Coloradoan’s Magill offered this thorough explainer in January, outlining “what you should know about Northern Colorado’s hot topic,” from what the fracking process entails to “what the science says” about how it might affect public health.

Magill boils down the public health risks associated with fracking to two issues: ground water quality (possible leaching of fracking chemicals, oil and gas into ground water) and air quality (pollution near drilling rigs and wells). He notes one of the problems in current practice is that the public can’t see the entire list of chemical ingredients of the hydraulic fluid forced into wells. Some “proprietary” chemicals are not listed on an industry database that some states, such as Colorado, require companies to use. Without such knowledge, citizens are left in the dark about potential hazards, especially in states which require no reporting. Proposed new federal regulations would require any well operators on federal and tribal land to disclose all chemicals used in fracking on an industry database. (Editor’s note, 6/13: This paragraph has been revised for clarity and completeness.)

Andrew Wineke, former business reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, said that in the course of reporting he was surprised to find out how much water is involved in fracking. Unlike agricultural use where water evaporates, used water from oil and gas drilling is not put back into the natural hydrological system. In most cases, the polluted wastewater from fracking is pumped into deep wells, below the water table. In 2012, Wineke wrote a two-part series about the use of water in oil and gas exploration, and both parts won awards this year in the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists’ “Top of Rockies” contest. He has since left journalism for a public relations job because of uncertainty with Gannett newspapers about the future of jobs at the newspaper.

For the basics (and more) on fracking, the Society of Environmental Journalists refers reporters to its database of related stories, and suggests Daily Climate as another good source for solid reporting on the topic. ProPublica, too, has done strong reporting on this issue.

2. Track legal maneuvers to ban fracking

In response to concerns about fracking, counties, cities and citizens are taking the issue into their own hands. Colorado communities have instituted fracking bans and environmentalists are considering a statewide referendum for the 2014 Colorado ballot. Earlier this month, Boulder city officials approved a one-year fracking ban, including not allowing energy companies access to city water for fracking operations.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported about Mora County, NM, the first county in the nation to ban hydraulic fracking. The Times’s Julie Cart offered this background:

In embracing the ban, landowners turned their back on potentially lucrative royalty payments from drilling on their property and joined in a groundswell of civic opposition to fracking that is rolling west from Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania in the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation.

Pittsburgh became the first US city to outlaw fracking in November 2010 after it came to light that an energy company held a lease to drill under a beloved city cemetery.

Since then, more than a dozen cities in the East have passed similar ordinances.

The movement leapfrogged west last summer when the town of Las Vegas, NM, took up the cause, calling for a halt to fracking until adequate regulations protecting public health are adopted.

It has now reached California, where communities are considering similar bans.

Environmental groups are also working another angle to curtail oil and gas drilling: lobbying the White House to designate tracts of public land national monuments. As The Hill’s energy and environment blog reported recently:

Environmental lobbyists are pressing President Obama to turn more western lands into national monuments to prevent oil-and-gas companies from drilling there.

The Sierra Club is leading the charge and is sweetening its message with political sugar, saying Obama could thereby help Democrats win House and Senate seats in midterm elections year.

3. Speaking of lobbying: follow the politics, money, and influence stories

This is rich, complex terrain—with state-by-state variations. Some of the online resources CJR has written about previously may come in handy here. As far as specific reporting models, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Oldham in Denver and Jim Snyder in Washington recently did a lengthy piece on the politics of—and money behind—fracking in Colorado. Wrote Oldham and Snyder:

Stan Dempsey, an oil and gas lobbyist, raced from one committee hearing to another in Colorado’s statehouse this spring, defending the industry against an onslaught of bills.

While only one of 10 measures passed, the flurry of activity is one of several worrying signs to Dempsey and others in the industry that Colorado, an oil-patch state long seen as friendly to energy producers, is becoming a battleground over hydraulic fracturing, the drilling process fueling the nation’s energy boom.

At stake for developers is access to resources that have made Colorado the nation’s fifth-largest producer of natural gas and the ninth-biggest oil producer. One group — the Western Energy Alliance, which represents about 400 oil and gas companies — says it plans to increase its lobbying budget four-fold to meet the threat.

Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has a master’s degree in geology, joined the industry in opposing many of the measures pushed by Democrats in the General Assembly. The only one that passed sets new requirements for companies during a spill.

4. Understand both the public and private oil lease process

Energy companies lease or buy property from private owners or go through a lease process with the Bureau of Land Management. Wineke, formerly of the Colorado Springs Gazette, said that the encroachment of oil extraction in the Colorado Springs area “came out of the blue.” There was no clear public ownership record of the land and wells in the area that Ultra Petroleum was buying up in recent years to drill. Wineke’s break for his reporting came when a government regulator told him to look in a state database for changes in well designation from agricultural to industrial use. That led Wineke to landowners who might confirm their sale of land to Ultra—a few of whom agreed to be interviewed. In the end, the company announced that they won’t pursue oil and gas extraction near Colorado Springs because test wells showed poor results, and the land has been put up for sale.

While in the East much of the hydraulic fracturing takes place on private land, the federal government’s large land holdings in the West add another layer of complexity for reporting. Some 90 percent of oil and gas extraction in the West uses public lands and the BLM lease process. Here, simply covering those bidding to lease government land for oil drilling can be a challenge. The Coloradoan’s Magill has written extensively about the secrecy involved with the leases. On May 14, for example he wrote:

While the public’s interest in oil and gas development on public land grows with Colorado’s energy boom, industry officials say making public their plans for the land before a lease is awarded gives competitors an unfair edge. The BLM keeps confidential the identity of anyone who wants to drill public lands until two days after the agency’s oil and gas lease sale… According to federal court filings, the BLM in 1995 directed its offices across the country to deny any public request for information about the identity of companies interested in leasing public lands for drilling until after the lease sale. The agency considered that data confidential commercial information exempt from the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

5. Get to know the regulators

Wineke said he quickly learned while covering oil and gas extraction that there is spin and suspicion from all sides—industry, regulators, and opponents. Among the most helpful sources, he has found, are state regulators and well inspectors, who can, for example, walk reporters through well drilling proposals (these can be 40- to 50-page documents filled with technical details.)

Most states have some level of regulation of oil and gas wells. Reporters should get familiar with relevant agency websites—like, for example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. On the federal level, the EPA has limited oversight of fracking (see this 2012 ProPublica explainer) but has released related air quality rules which will go into effect in 2015. The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comment through August 23 on its first proposed fracking regulations, which include safety standards, improved “integration with existing state and tribal standards, and increases flexibility for oil and gas developers.” This is another story thread for reporters to follow.

6. Use public records as foundations for basic beat stories

The Coloradoan’s Magill, for example, has been culling state records and reports to better understand energy companies and fracking. After digging through the 3,852 violation notices issued to oil and gas companies by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission since 1996, Magill reported in May that the state of Colorado rarely fines oil and gas rule breakers—“just less than 7 percent” of violations have resulted in fines, and nearly half of those fines “have been for $2,000 or less.” A bill to increase such fines died last month in the state legislature, due to “an impasse between the bill’s Democratic sponsors, the governor’s office, and the industry over the inclusion of a mandatory minimum fine.” Magill is also at work on a story based on reported oil spills at drilling sites.

In a story published last week, Bloomberg News reviewed hundreds of legal and regulatory documents to uncover a trail of court cases involving claims of people who said they become ill because of fracking. Nearly all of the cases have been sealed from public view. Per Bloomberg News:

In cases from Wyoming to Arkansas, Pennsylvania to Texas, drillers have agreed to cash settlements or property buyouts with people who say hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, ruined their water, according to a review by Bloomberg News of hundreds of regulatory and legal filings. In most cases homeowners must agree to keep quiet.

The strategy keeps data from regulators, policymakers, the news media and health researchers, and makes it difficult to challenge the industry’s claim that fracking has never tainted anyone’s water.

There’s clear potential here for local follow up. Among the cases cited by Bloomberg, for example, is that of a woman from Silt, CO, who “believed gas drilling near her home…was to blame for a tumor she developed” and whose “complaint and the existence, though not details, of a settlement and non-disclosure pact were disclosed in filings with the oil and gas commission.”

Correction: This article originally gave incorrect information about ownership of The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Until last year The Gazette was owned by Freedom Communications, Inc.; it is now owned by Clarity Media. CJR regrets the error.

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Joel Campbell is CJR's correspondent for Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. An associate journalism professor at Brigham Young University, he is the past Freedom of Information chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists and was awarded the Honorary Publisher Award by the Utah Press Association for his advocacy work on behalf of journalists in the Utah Legislature. Follow him on Twitter @joelcampbell. Tags: , , , , ,