Oil, Gas and a Changing Landscape

5457126332_ce2cbe1650_zWhen I fly I try to get a window seat so I can get a bird’s eye view of America. In the past 30 years that view has changed. Vast landscapes have been transformed into industrial zones for oil and gas production. For as far as the eye can see, large portions of Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and other states, are now industrial grids of well pads, pipeline corridors, compressor stations and roads. Sometimes it’s hard to see the homes, schools, farms and ranches for the oil and gas infrastructure.

I live in southwestern Colorado, near the New Mexico border. Our states, like Wyoming and Montana, have abundant reserves of oil and gas. Colorado and New Mexico have tens of thousands of oil and gas wells already and the bird’s eye view of our region is changing as I speak. Layered on top of historical oil and gas fields is a new and more intensive development – shale. Once thought too deep and too expensive to produce, advances in horizontal hydraulic fracturing have allowed companies to tap shale oil and gas reserves thousands of feet below the surface. These wells require more land, more water and more chemicals for drilling and fracking.

When the public demands standards that protect water, air, and public health, the industry is quick to dismiss concerns that their activities threaten our water and air. Instead they tell people with dozens or hundreds of wells in their communities that it’s in the national interest to produce energy and be energy independent. Without question, the people living in America’s energy-producing regions are doing their part. Those who bear the burden of energy production deserve the most protective regulations possible.

That said, there are many people who challenge the notion that regulation is an answer to the impacts caused by reckless oil and gas drilling across the United States. For many people, the answer is to simply stop drilling for oil and gas or to ban fracking. But that’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen without a national energy policy and the political will to transition to a clean and renewable energy future.

For 25 years I’ve worked with communities across the country to prevent and minimize oil and gas impacts. We’ve organized diverse coalitions to pass several precedent-setting laws and regulations. Hard-won regulations are a small piece of the puzzle in the constant and difficult fight to not only require, but achieve, mandatory best practices and real protections for people and air and water quality – – all in the face of a powerful and highly polluting industry.

Yet if we stop fighting for such measures and take up the “ban fracking” banner as our one answer, we abandon communities in the oil and gas patch and we lose a key mechanism to hold companies accountable for the harm they cause. Regulations that require well setbacks from homes and rivers, light and noise limits, use of emission preventers, and non-toxic fracking fluids help ensure that companies take environmental impacts and public health into account.

A rapidly changing climate and extreme weather are making more and more people question whether developing more polluting fossil fuels is the right thing to do. Wells are being drilled in people’s backyards, on farms and ranches, next to schools, and in watersheds that provide drinking water and wildlife habitat. Most people are shocked to learn that the oil and gas industry is exempt from many of our federal environmental laws. For example, fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry’s track record has been abysmal; drilling has never been proven safe, and it may never be. I know that it certainly won’t as long as the industry continues to obstruct attempts to adequately study and regulate its activities, and as long as it is allowed in the absence of strong enforcement–to essentially police itself.

In the meantime, for those who live with oil and gas development in their backyards, it’s not asking much to require that companies fully comply with all parts of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and to stop obstructing efforts to update and strengthen local and state regulations.

I wonder what the bird’s eye view of America will be 30 years from now.

In Durango, Colorado, I’m Gwen Lachelt for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. Please join me in Hamilton during the last weekend in October for AERO’s 39th Annual Meeting.  Get meeting details and register online at aeromt.org.

This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on October 10, 2013.

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