Activist Group’s Misleading Map Exaggerates Spills on Public Lands

Anti-fracking activist group WildEarth Guardians (WEG) is out with another misleading public lands campaign, this time with the release of an interactive map that purports to illustrate “rampant” oil and gas related “major undesirable events” on public lands. You might recall that WEG’s public lands focus started earlier this year when it protested a Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lease sale. Oddly, the group expressed disappointment when the sale didn’t attract oil and gas producers.

Nevertheless, WEG’s actions are not surprising, considering it is one of the key litigants in the “Keep It in the Ground” Endangered Species Act lawsuit attacking oil and gas development across the west. The group is not only actively pursuing “Frack-free public lands,” but a ban on oil and gas development altogether:

“Our vision is simple: a future 100% powered by renewable energy by 2035. To get there, the goal of our Climate and Energy program is reform that prioritizes energy efficiency and conservation, phases out fossil fuels, and embraces environmentally appropriate clean power sources.”

A review of the WEG’s map shows it manipulated information collected by the BLM and characterized each of the reported incidents detailed on the map — including spills, blowouts and fires — as “disasters”:

Source: Twitter

Not surprisingly, WEG took some semantic and contextual liberties with the BLM data it collected in an effort to sell these incidents as “major” and advance its objective of scaring the public and banning oil and gas development. The blog post claims:

“In total, since 2010, there has been at least one ‘major undesirable event’ every day on our public lands.”

But that claim is simply false based on the incorrect use of the word “major” to describe each of these events. BLM defines “major undesirable events” to be spills of more than 100 barrels. The WEG map actually lists all “undesirable events,” which BLM defines as being 100 barrels or less. In other words, every spill reported to BLM since 2010 — even those small in volume and those that were contained on the wellpad with no environmental impact — is presented on this map as a “major” incident.

As several comments accompanying the incident reports listed on the map reveal, most were not “disasters” in any way, shape or form. Here are some examples:

  • “The stuffing box at the well head developed a leak spilling approximately 5bbls of emulsion. The spill area was about 10’x50′ and was all contained to the well pad.”
  • Cleanup looks good, will be ongoing , finalizing with warmer weather and thawing soils. Current containment is adequate.”
  • A frac tank leaked, fluid remained on location.”
  • All fluid was contained within the firewall surrounding the tank battery.”
  • “NO GROUNDWATER IMPACT”

Clearly, many of the incidents detailed on the map were relatively small, remediation was immediate and contained on their respective sites with zero environmental impact. But that didn’t keep the author of the blog from characterizing them as “disasters.” Although the word “disasters” was scrubbed from the blog post a few days after it was released, it remained in the authors’ tweets.

Source: Twitter 

Not only does WEG exaggerate the severity of the instances detailed on the map, it is clear that the group’s claim that the incidents are “rampant” is a stretch as well. The data collected by WEG finds there were 2,360 spills, fires and blowouts reported on federal lands since 2010. But WEG also reports there are 94,000 wells on public lands in the western United States, showing that spills are relatively infrequent compared to the number of wells in production.

Furthermore, a recent E&E News report reveals that spills are declining rapidly not only on public lands, but throughout the U.S. E&E noted earlier this year that oil and gas related spills have fallen 24 percent from 2014 to 2016 at the same time oil production increased, showing that producers’ continued attention and commitment to safe operations are proving effective.

E&E also noted in its recent story on the WEG spills map that, “Spills in BLM’s share of the U.S. oil patch account for just a fraction of oil field releases nationwide.” WEG’s data also reveals (inadvertently) that the overall trend of rapidly declining spills is occurring on federal lands as well, as there have been just 106 “undesirable” events on public lands so far in 2017, meaning such events are on pace to be far lower than the 372 reported in 2016.

WEG’s blog post announcing the map makes its ultimate goal crystal clear, stating:

“If the oil and gas industry can’t prevent spills, fires, blowouts and other calamities, then they shouldn’t be allowed to develop our public lands, period.”

But as is often the case with the “Keep It In the Ground” movement, the actual data used to try to justify its extreme agenda does not stand up to scrutiny.

Contrary to this activist fear-mongering, the industry is reducing spills and methane emissions on public lands while continuing to play a key role in boosting the economy for many communities in the west. For example, oil and gas production from federal lands contributed $1.6 billion in tax revenue to New Mexico’s annual budget in 2016— roughly 28 percent of its total budget. That revenue funds schools, hospitals and roads, and New Mexico’s oil and gas industry employs more than 100,000 people.

Source: Energy in Depth

It is a similar story in Colorado, where fracking on federal lands in Weld County generated more than $7 million dollars in grant money from the U.S. Forest Service from mineral extraction on the Pawnee National Grasslands in 2016.

But despite the enormous positives oil and gas production on public lands brings to western communities, fringe anti-fracking activists groups like WEG will do anything to elicit fear in the public, even if that means fudging numbers and figures and — in this case — creating a misleading and misconstrued interactive “incidents” map.

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