Job rhetoric on rise as debate heats up over federal regulation of gas industry

From Boulder to Grand Junction, the debate over natural gas versus coal, looming federal regulation of both power sources and what it all means for energy sector jobs across Colorado is heating up.

In Grand Junction on Thursday, an energy researcher told an audience attending the Mesa State College Energy Management Symposium that longer permit periods for natural gas exploration and production on public lands and greater gas reserves in other states could hurt Colorado in coming years.

“Exploration is shifting to other areas,” Evergreen-based Bentek Energy CEO Porter Bennett said Thursday, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “It could be ominous for the Rockies.”

But even as debate raged on Capitol Hill Wednesday and Thursday with the introduction by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., of his CLEAR Act (Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act), Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s FRAC Act continued to grab the spotlight as a potential jobs killer in Colorado.

While CLEAR would create a new Interior Department agency to revamp and oversee oil and gas leasing on public lands, FRAC would remove a 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted the natural gas industry by for the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or injecting wells with water, sand and chemicals to free up more gas.

An Oregon consulting firm recently produced a critique of a report by the American Petroleum Institute that found the FRAC Act would result in a 10-percent drop in domestic natural gas production over the next five years. The ECONorthwest critique concluded the API report was exaggerated and failed to consider the economic benefits of environmental regulation.

“Developing energy and protecting the environment is not an either/or scenario,” Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Boulder told the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. “We strongly believe clean solutions are readily available, economical, and sometimes even profitable for industry. The FRAC Act is a common sense approach, especially when drinking water and human health are at risk.”

Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Nate Strauch countered jobs will be certainly be lost if pending federal legislation goes through: “Any time you’re overburdening the industry with regulation, there’s no question there’ll be economic impacts. A lost job is not a statistic to [the 70,000 gas industry workers in Colorado]. It’s their livelihood.”

Still, a recent phone survey conducted in the heavily drilled Third Congressional District found two-thirds of the voters favor greater federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. Gubernatorial candidate and state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, didn’t like those numbers, reportedly responding, “I’ll bet 95 percent of voters also wish unemployment wasn’t at a 65-year high.”

Natural gas is being touted nationally by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. Bill Ritter as the cleaner-burning “bridge fuel” that will wean the state off coal-fired power and fill in nicely when the sun isn’t shining for solar power plants or the wind isn’t blowing for wind farms.

But, according to an in-depth story by veteran Colorado journalist Allen Best in the Summit Daily News on Friday, state geologist Vincent Matthews has his doubts about both natural gas as a way to break our coal addiction and carbon dioxide sequestration as a means of offsetting the higher greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants.

Shale plays so prevalent in the latest gas boom stop producing very rapidly, according to Matthews, meaning more than three times as many wells were needed in 2008 to produce just as much gas as 1995. “You have to drill more and more just to stay even,” he told Best. So while reserves may be statistically impressive, production requirements are rising.

“It’s just like oil shale. What difference does it make that the U.S. Geological Survey has increased the estimated reserves of oil shale from one trillion to 1.5 trillion barrels. We haven’t gotten one drop from it yet.”

Best also reported that no less of a coal-power expert than Jim Rodgers, CEO of mega-utility Duke Energy, called natural gas the “crack cocaine of our industry” during a speech in Boulder last week. Rogers is a homeowner in the Vail Valley and a major investor in wind energy on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.


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