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