Group spotlights fracing mix

A conservation group appears to have cracked the recipe for hydraulic fracturing fluids. The Environmental Working Group recently released its report, “Drilling Around the Law,” and notes that gas companies are skirting federal law when they inject toxic petroleum distillates into the ground to free up trapped coalbed methane.

Courtesy of the so-called “Halliburton Loophole,” drilling companies are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and not required to disclose the chemical recipes in use. As a result, people and ecosystems in proximity to oil and gas wells face exposure to unknown and potentially harmful chemicals. With respect to hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, a stew of unknown chemicals is injected underground to break up oil and gas deposits. The recipe changes from operation to operation, and there is no way of knowing what is being injected or emitted in the back yard.

The Environmental Working Group has found some common ingredients in fracing fluids, however. “Drilling Around the Law” notes that distillates include kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum products that often contain high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen. The report cites drilling company disclosures in noting that the petroleum distillates used in a single well could contain enough benzene to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of drinking water to unsafe levels.

Diesel is the only substance for which drillers must seek a permit before it is injected underground, and some companies have pledged not to use it in certain circumstances. However, distillates disclosed in records analyzed by EWG have been found to contain up to 93 times more benzene than diesel but require no authorization prior to use.

“When companies say that they will not use diesel and then use other petroleum distillates, it’s a bit like promising not to smoke Marlboros and then lighting up a Camel,” said EWG Senior Counsel Dusty Horwitt. “As far as the toxic components, the products are at least as dangerous.”

Theo Colborn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, argued that it is time for industry to start playing by the Clean Water Act rules. The exchange, based in nearby Paonia, is the only organization of its kind and focuses on the human health and environmental problems resulting from ambient exposure to chemicals. With respect to oil and gas drilling, there is plenty of ambient exposure to go around. TEDX has compiled a list of 246 chemicals used in drilling in Colorado. Nearly half of these have been shown to harm the brain and nervous system. More than 70 percent have negative effects on the skin, eyes, sensory organs, liver function and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. In addition, nearly half of the chemicals have been shown to have harmful ecological effects.

“Inspection and oversight costs should be absorbed by industry as part of doing business and not be the responsibility of taxpayers,” said Colborn.


New Mexico eyes a green future

New Mexico is rolling out the red carpet to alternative energy. Last week, Gov. Bill Richardson signed an executive order that outlines the state’s course to building a comprehensive green economy. The move is significant for the nearby state, which boasts ample solar and wind resources, but is also home to two of the nation’s dirtiest coal fired power plant – the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station.

“A comprehensive green economy is critical to the future of New Mexico and will lead our state into a new era of economic vitality and stability,” Richardson said on Jan. 12. “Today I am outlining a clear path to ensure our state capitalizes economically and environmentally on our abundant renewable resources and assets.”

New Mexico has identified five immediate goals for the state to realize its full green economy potential. The goals include becoming a leader in renewable energy export; becoming the center of the North American solar industry; leading the nation in Green Grid innovation; continuedleadership in green building and energy efficiency; and creating an educational system focused on green technologies.

Green industry is applauding New Mexico’s move and concurs that the state is poised to become a national leader in alternative energy. “New Mexico, with a business-friendly environment and world-class solar resources, is quickly becoming an important hub in the Southwest for solar manufacturing, installation and project development,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Despite the recession, New Mexico’s solar industry truly represents an economic bright spot.”

Resch concluded that all 50 states can and should take similar steps. “Governor Richardson’s leadership has helped steer New Mexico toward a strong economic future based on solar energy,” Resch said. “With today’s announcement, New Mexico can lead the nation toward a bright and secure energy future.”


Winter tourism off to slow start

Winter tourism seems to be struggling to leave the gate in the Rocky Mountains. Many resort lodging properties posted disappointing December numbers, according to a report released by the Mountain Travel Research Program.

The report noted that the overall mountain resort industry remains behind the 2008-09 season, which was one of the weakest seasons for mountain reservations in nearly a decade. Occupancy for December was down 2.3 percent by the end of the month, and only 40.3 percent of rooms were filled during the typically busy period.

The report blamed poor economic indicators for the lack of vacation and travel spending. It noted that December witnessed the first decrease in the Dow Jones Industrial Average since May. It also blamed persistent pessimism about unemployment and income stability for skiers’ overall refusal to travel.

On a positive note, advanced reservations for the next two months are relatively strong and slightly ahead of 2009. However, reservations for the next six months are still down 5.4 percent from a year ago.

“We aren’t seeing any significant increase in demand for vacations from last year except when low price or special promotions and events are added to the mix,” observed Ralf Garrison, director of MTRiP. “Local skiers and riders who filled in the resorts last season aren’t as motivated to hit the slopes as last year. Their behavior seems to be saying ‘we’re just not that into you.’ We expect that attractive deals and good snow will be required to move the needle.”

– Will Sands