Mountain States

The ‘Promised Land’ Problem for Activists

**NOTE: This piece originally ran on January 31, 2013, at Colorado Energy News.**

“Promised Land,” the anti-drilling movie starring Matt Damon, has officially backfired on environmental activists. They hoped the film would take the box office by storm, win an Oscar, and persuade the overwhelming majority of Americans who support domestic oil and gas production to suddenly change their minds. In fact, in the days before the national release of “Promised Land,” the Associated Press reported environmental groups were “positively giddy” about how the film would boost their misinformation campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing and eliminate oil and gas development on American soil. It was even called an “epic film” by Food & Water Watch – the Washington, D.C. group that’s orchestrating most of the anti-energy activism in Colorado.

But “Promised Land” was a flop. It opened nationally in close to 1,700 theaters, but within two weeks, all but 134 theaters had dropped the movie due to low ticket sales. According to the L.A. Times, “Promised Land” cost $15 million to produce, but by late January, it grossed less than $8 million at the box office. Adding insult to financial injury, the movie got bad reviews, failed to win a single nomination during awards season, and is less popular on Facebook than, a website my colleagues and I practically built with duct tape and baling wire to tell the other side of the story. And even before the film was released, it was revealed “Promised Land” received financial support from the United Arab Emirates, a member of the OPEC foreign oil cartel with a clear interest in suppressing U.S. energy production.

The real losers in the “Promised Land” debacle, however, are the environmental activists who pinned their hopes on a Hollywood movie to make the case against hydraulic fracturing. By promoting a work of fiction as “real life,” the activists proved just how little they care about the facts. They gambled that nobody would notice their dishonesty if “Promised Land” was a runaway success and deceived the public into opposing a fundamentally safe technology that’s creating jobs, boosting the economy, bolstering the nation’s energy security and cutting people’s energy bills. But when the movie failed, the activists lost their bet, and their credibility along with it.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t stop activist groups from peddling their fictional talking points as they continue to try to mislead citizens, elected officials, state regulators and the news media. So, in the interests of promoting a serious discussion about oil and gas development in Colorado, here are some of the worst examples of those talking points and just some of the facts that explain why they’re wrong.

CREDO Action: “Fracking is inherently dangerous.”

That’s not true, according to President Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator and attorney general. “There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking,” Salazar told Congress last year. “My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.” Salazar’s comments match the conclusions of a report from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council, which found hydraulic fracturing is “safe and effective” and a “key technology” for producing affordable energy in America.

Sierra Club: “Fracking contaminates groundwater.”

Not true. Hydraulic fracturing takes place thousands of feet below ground, in many cases more than a mile underground. According to Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback, an adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, there has never been a case of fracturing fluids migrating through thousands of feet of impermeable rock into shallow drinking water wells. The process “is typically done at depths of around 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and drinking water is usually pumped from shallow aquifers, no more than one or two hundred feet below the surface,” Zoback says. “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” Zoback’s view has been affirmed by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson a number of times, and by a recent study from the U.S.Geological Survey in Louisiana’s Fayetteville Shale, which found “no groundwater contamination associated with gas production” from hydraulic fracturing. And in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper has said after testing thousands of the state’s water wells, “we can’t find frack fluid in the water.”

Save Colorado from Fracking: “How can we afford to have millions of gallons of water wasted by fracking?”

Environmental activists in Colorado and other Western states have a clear strategy to manipulate the fear of drought and water shortages into fear of the oil and gas industry. But it’s a dishonest line of attack that takes the “millions of gallons of water” used in the hydraulic fracturing process completely out of context.

Colorado’s water use can be measured in trillions of gallons, and according to a joint report from three state agencies, “the amount of water currently used for hydraulic fracturing in Colorado is a small portion of the total amount of water used.” In fact, the report finds hydraulic fracturing accounts for 0.08 percent of the state’s water consumption. Compared to other sources, this is one-fifth the amount used by power plants, roughly 100 times less than municipal and industrial demand, and 1,000 times less than agriculture, the state’s biggest water user. Hydraulic fracturing’s water use is expected to rise in the next few years, but only to “slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the total water used,” according to the report.

The activists also leave out another critical factor from their talking points – water intensity, or the amount of water consumed for every unit of energy produced. Researchers at Harvard University studied the water intensity of natural gas produced from deep shale formations with the help of hydraulic fracturing and found it was 1,000 times lower than the water intensity of renewable biofuels, such as ethanol. Why? Because the hydraulic fracturing process lasts only a matter of days, but shale gas wells keep producing energy for many years, which dramatically lowers water intensity. “The increased role of shale gas in the U.S. energy sector could result in reduced water consumption,” the Harvard study said.

In a separate paper, another team of researchers from Colorado State University and oil and gas producer Noble Energy found the water intensity of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas was “one of the lowest” of all energy sources, and “comparable with solar energy.”

Food & Water Watch: “Air quality [on the Front Range] is 10 times worse than Houston, Texas, as a result of oil and gas drilling.”

This is completely false. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency closely monitors ground-level ozone or smog in 41 major metropolitan areas. Houston is near the bottom of the list, ranked 33rd in air quality, while the nine-county Denver area ties for second place.

That doesn’t make Denver’s air quality perfect, of course. Like any big city with large numbers of cars, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities, it has smog. But emissions from oil and gas development, which are tightly regulated under state and federal law, are not making the problem worse. “In recent years, the trend has been downward,” with average smog levels that “fluctuate within the amount of variance seen for the last several years,” according to a statewide report from the Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division. EPA data also show similar fluctuations around Denver, with a recent decline. These smog observations were recorded during a major expansion of energy production in Colorado. For example, from 2006 to 2011, oil and natural gas production in Colorado increased by 59 percent and 36 percent respectively.

Food & Water Watch: “Fracking drives down property values.”

If this were true, then Colorado’s real estate market would have been hit harder by the 2007-2009 national collapse in housing prices, and would have recovered more slowly than other parts of the country, because oil and gas production increased dramatically during this time.

The facts tell a very different story. According to NBC News, Colorado real estate “was not badly damaged when the housing bubble broke,” and the state has the fifth-strongest housing market in the country. In the Denver metropolitan area, economic development officials say home prices “have weathered the market’s recent weakness much better than prices nationwide,” and increased by more than 11 percent last year.  Meanwhile in Weld County, which has about 19,000 oil and gas wells, the statistics tell a story that’s just as good or even a little better. In the county that has more oil and gas wells than any other county in the U.S., median home prices rose by 12 percent last year, according to IRES MLS data.

This is no surprise, of course. The real estate market does better when the economy does better, and according to Englewood-based consulting firm, IHS, the energy production tied to hydraulic fracturing makes a huge contribution to the state’s economy. It supports 77,000 jobs, adds $11 billion in economic value and generates $1.4 billion in Colorado state and local taxes each year.

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