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Call for U.S. natural gas exports to Europe, Ukraine sparks enviro debate in Colorado

Denver Democrat renews demands for national disclosure of fracking chemicals

March 10, 2014, 10:56 am
oil drilling near Fort Collins homes

An oil rig near homes in Fort Collins (David O. Williams photo).

As a quartet of Central European nations late last week clamored for natural gas imports from the United States in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, 28 Democratic and independent U.S. senators on Monday were gearing up for an all-night marathon session on climate change.

One of those senators is Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, who last week introduced a bill to expedite exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States to World Trade Organization countries such as Ukraine, which is largely dependent on its hostile Russian neighbors for much of its natural gas supply.

There is growing fear Russia, which also supplies the majority of natural gas to Europe through pipelines in Ukraine, will cut off supplies in response to widespread western condemnation of its invasion of Urkaine’s Crimea region.

Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic late last week sent a letter to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, requesting the regulatory fast-tracking of approvals for two dozen LNG export terminals. Boehner last week already called for the same steps in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Udall has long been a proponent of natural gas exports from Colorado and throughout the United States, where hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – has turned the country into a natural gas-producing powerhouse. However, the vast majority of U.S. gas is consumed domestically.

As early as 2009, Udall noted the strategic vulnerability of Ukraine and touted the benefits of U.S. gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner fuels such as wind and solar. Natural gas in cars and power plants burns up to 50 percent cleaner than coal and 30 percent cleaner than oil.

“It is a bridge fuel that can get us to the next era of clean fuels,” Udall co-wrote at the time with Texas businessman and natural gas proponent T. Boone Pickens. “As a transition fuel, it can help us do our part in cleaning up the planet, it can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and it can provide a real boost for jobs and the economy.”

Battlement Mesa gas rig

A gas rig near Battlement Mesa on Colorado’s Western Slope (David O. Williams photo).

But unlike coal mining, drilling for oil and gas is a widespread and fairly impactful industrial process that is increasingly occurring where the majority of people live and work on Colorado’s northern Front Range from Denver to Fort Collins.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat and Colorado’s senior member of Congress, on Friday called for better environmental safeguards before stepping up domestic production in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

“As natural gas operations continue to expand in Colorado and across the nation, it’s important that it is done safely and responsibly,” DeGette said in a prepared statement Friday to the Rocky Mountain Post. “Passing common-sense legislation like the FRAC Act would ensure the economic benefits – or potential diplomatic benefits – do not come at the cost of the health and safety of families and communities.”

U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican challenging Udall for his senate seat in November, introduced the Domestic Prosperity and Global Freedom Act on Thursday, a bill that would speed up U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approval of LNG export applications.

“Similar legislation has been proposed in the Senate, though observers note that the Senate bill could require companies with existing applications to have to re-file, causing further delays and filing burdens,” Gardner wrote in his weekly email newsletter in which he also touted the economic benefits. A Gardner spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on the potential environmental impacts of increased domestic production.

Udall says Russia’s “threat to use its natural gas exports as a cudgel [in Ukraine]” underscores the need to allow energy firms producing natural gas in the United States to export to WTO countries without a lengthy DOE approval process.

Stepped up production domestically can be done responsibly, he argues, without adverse impacts to the health and safety of Colorado residents. Four Colorado cities last November voted to ban fracking out of concern for potential air and water pollution, and last month citizen groups seeking greater local control over state-regulated drilling launched a ballot initiative.

“Sen. Udall has been a longtime proponent of Colorado’s balanced approach to energy development,” Udall spokesman Mike Saccone told the Rocky Mountain Post Friday, pointing to the senior senator’s statewide energy tour highlighting Colorado’s energy diversity, from biomass to natural gas to wind and solar.

“Responsible development of Colorado’s natural gas resources is a critical part of that strategy,” Saccone added. “Sen. Udall firmly believes that one well contaminated or one person sickened is one too many.”

Gardner, whose congressional district contains the most heavily drilled county in the state (Weld), on Thursday said in a press release that, “European nations are clamoring for a resource that is abundant in Colorado, but current law restricts our ability to sell it to them. This bill allows America to meet the needs of our allies, while creating economic opportunity and good jobs here in Colorado.”

Gardner’s senate campaign on Thursday accused Udall of “taking a sudden political interest [in LNG exports] in an election year.” But Saccone countered that Udall has been pushing for faster LNG terminal permitting for more than a year.

“Congressman Gardner’s comment — which, for the record, came several days after Sen. Udall first highlighted this issue — overlooks Sen. Udall’s long body of work supporting expediting the permitting of new LNG terminals,” Saccone said, referring to a press release on Tuesday.

Saccone also pointed to several Udall comments and letters to the DOE dating back more than a year.

Gardner has received $452,550 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, according to Open Secrets, compared to $177,000 for Udall.

DeGette, a Denver Democrat, has been trying to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act for more than five years. The bill would remove a Bush administration Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for fracking, in which millions of gallons of water and sand with trace amounts of often undisclosed chemicals are injected under high pressure into oil and gas wells to free up more hydrocarbons.

Dubbed the “Haliburton Loophole” by critics of the oil-and-gas servicing company that developed many fracking techniques, the 2005 exemption allows companies to keep chemical fracking mixtures secret for proprietary reasons. DeGette wants to remove the exemption and require full disclosure nationally.

Colorado, ranked sixth among natural gas-producing states, adopted a fracking chemical disclosure rule in 2011.

DeGette last week pointed out that the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board issued a new report (pdf) recommending the full disclosure of chemicals used in fracking on federal land – the same approach she’s long advocated for on private land undr the FRAC Act.

“Companies can publicly disclose the list of the chemicals they use without revealing secrets about the exact formula,” DeGette said. “If this type of public disclosure is planned for drilling on federal lands run by the Bureau of Land Management, we should give the public that same information for every drilling well.”

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David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environment, sports and outdoor writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as the The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, SKI, SKIING, Powder, People, LA Weekly and the Huffington Post.

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