Beset by a growing chorus of environmental opposition culminating in more stringent drilling regulations in April, some in Colorado’s natural-gas industry say they need to do a better job of portraying their product as the cleanest burning fossil fuel.
“Back in the ’90s or so, there was a lot of excitement over natural gas because it is so much cleaner,” said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS).
“People were excited about the fact that it is so much cleaner burning than any other conventional fuel, and we kind of got away from that in recent years. So we have been reminding folks of that, that’s for certain.”
In fact, natural gas-fired power plants produce just more than 50 percent of the carbon emissions of a coal-fired power plant, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, but it’s the drilling process and its requisite infrastructure that rankle many conservationists.
“Changing your sound bite doesn’t change the fact that drilling is still dirty,” said Matthew Garrington, field director for Denver-based Environment Colorado. “We just went though a two-year-long effort to find ways to create a healthier energy industry and minimize impacts from oil and gas drilling” through new drilling regulations.
“Natural-gas drilling has real and direct impacts, whether we’re talking about fragmentation of wildlife habitat, creating a network of roads and pipelines and industrializing our mountain landscapes, or impacts to ground and surface water, drilling’s dirty. No amount of PR spin is going to change that fact.”
But Colorado, by implementing some of the toughest drilling regulations in the nation, may see some real economic impacts if companies are forced to move rigs to greener pastures, said Susan Alvillar, community affairs representative for Williams, one of the nation’s largest natural-gas producers.
Alvillar admits a “perfect storm” of factors, including a global recession, precipitous drop-off in demand by manufacturers and the plummeting price of the commodity, have caused the current slowdown in drilling on the Western Slope. Last year at this time, Williams had 25 rigs in operation in Garfield County — now they’re down to just eight — but she blames the new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) regulations as well.
“It’s also the new COGCC rules. Companies right now are tracking what the passage of the rules on April 1 means to the dollars they’re spending on their drilling programs,” Alvillar said. “Getting rigs back up will be an economic decision, and we do have other areas where we operate. We operate in Wyoming, we operate in Texas, in Oklahoma, and it just will depend on what the economics show us in terms of return on investment.”
Williams is generally credited with some of the most environmentally sensitive drilling practices on the Western Slope, but Alvillar agrees the industry as a whole could do more to promote itself as the cleanest form of conventional fuel.
“We can’t really control how the media reports things, so a lot of times the messaging is not ours to be had,” Alivillar said. “Having said that, we haven’t done a very good job of educating people on what we do every day.”
Coal-fired power plants are taking even more heat from environmentalists these days than gas-fired facilities, and yet coal is coveted by some utilities as a more stable commodity.
And Democratic lawmakers continue to take aim at both forms of power, both in the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act and a hydraulic fracturing bill U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, is working on.
“Colorado has done an amazing job at trying to balance [energy] industry interests with other important parts of Colorado’s economy, like our $10 billion a year outdoor recreation economy,” Garrington said. “The West has changed, and we value outdoor recreation very highly, and we also value the quality of life.”