Report critical of drilling draws rebuttal

James Fenton
Travis Allen, left, Basin Well Logging & Perforating supervisor, and Susan Alvillar, WPX community affairs representative, talk about the operations July 24 at a WPX Energy fracking site site at Turtle Mountain  in Lybrook.

FARMINGTON – An Albuquerque-based environmental group has released a report critical of the oil and gas industry, blaming the industry processes of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling with putting the land, air and water resources at risk.

But oil and gas industry officials say the report is deliberately misleading and guilty of taking the facts out of context for maximum scare value.

Last week, Environment New Mexico released an update of its Fracking by the Numbers analysis, which is described as a comprehensive look at the environmental harm the nation’s 130,000 fracking wells have caused since 2005.

The group report, "Fracking by the Numbers — The Damage to Our Water, Land and Climate from a Decade of Dirty Drilling," was written by Elizabeth Ridlington and Kim Norman of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Frontier Group, and Rachel Richardson of the Environment America Research & Policy Center.

“In just the last two and a half years, the number of fracked oil and gas wells has increased by 55,000,” Ridlington said in a press release. “That growth in fracked wells means more polluted water, more toxic chemicals and more communities at risk.”

The authors of the 53-page report spotlight multiple environmental and public-health risks from oil and gas operations in New Mexico since 2005.

During well completion alone, hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells in the state released 125 million pounds of methane, a climate-warming pollutant 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, according to the report.

Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in the release that a concern over atmospheric methane prompted Colorado to implement tighter rules over the greenhouse gas. She said that change has been a success New Mexico could follow.

Merrion Oil and Gas Corpration Investment Manager George Sharpe says a recently released report critical of the oil and gas industry plays on people's fears and exaggerates surface spills.

“One of the principal consequences of fracking is the release of methane into the atmosphere," Feibelman said in the release. "This potent global warming gas is also associated with smog and respiratory disease that harm our friends and neighbors throughout the state. Industry could be protecting our communities and putting its people back to work retrofitting wells to capture this resource that it is currently wasting, but instead its wasting time and money fighting rules that have already been implemented at low cost in Colorado.”

The drilling of wells in New Mexico has also consumed 3.13 billion gallons of water since 2005 — an average of 1.34 million gallons per well — according to the report.

Drilled wells produced about 8.5 million gallons of waste water in 2014, according to the report. The report also focuses on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Over 10 years, that process amounted to the use of about 833 million pounds of chemicals, including sodium chloride, ethylene glycol and citric acid.

Sanders Moore, Environment New Mexico director, said that the report's data are accurate.

“The numbers in this report don’t lie,” said Moore said in a statement. “For the past decade, fracking has been a nightmare for our drinking water, our open lands and our climate.”

Wally Drangmeister, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the use of the numbers is where the report goes wrong.

"This reminds me very much that in oil and gas, it takes a very short of amount of time to scare someone," Drangmeister said. "The radical environmentalists do that all the time. Now what they've done is they have taken some facts that are accurate and some inaccuracies. The biggest problem is the conclusions it draws and how it uses data. It takes data points and puts them in a context where it is presented for maximum scare value. They don't disclose the context of many of their statements, and by doing so, they give consistently inaccurate statements about the issues and risks involved."

Drangmeister pointed to a statistic on water use by the industry that reports that 1.7 billion gallons of water was used for hydraulically fracturing wells in New Mexico in 2013.

"That sounds awful, doesn't it?" he said. "All that scarce fresh water — 1.7 billion with a 'b' used to frack wells. But in context, that water use is a mere 0.14 percent of water in the state — every other industry, residential, you name it. In context, it's a lot less scary."

George Sharpe, investment manager with Merrion Oil and Gas Co. in Farmington, said the report plays on people's fears and exaggerates surface spills that represent a tiny fraction of all operations conducted by the industry.

"Fracking hasn’t gotten into ground water over the 60 years it's been done — never," Sharpe said in an emailed statement. "It doesn’t get into ground water now, and it won’t in the future. The very few situations where ground water was affected were surface spills or shallow casing leaks that had nothing to do with the fracking process. Those types of situations are going to occur on occasion, and are dealt with and cleaned up as they happen."

Dugan Production Corperation Engineering Manager John Roe talks about plans for Energy Week, an educational program for area eighth-graders that begins Thursday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

John Roe of Dugan Production Co., another Farmington independent oil and gas company, agreed.

Sharpe and Roe are finalizing details for a week-long event that buses in about 2,000 eighth-graders from around the area to the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park to listen to presentations by officials from area oil and gas companies, and tour exhibits to gain a better understanding of the latest trends in energy production.

"Fossil fuels, right now, the important message we try to give the kids is (to tell them that) this is where we are today," Roe said, pointing to a pie chart that shows fossil fuels delivering about 83 percent of the total energy demand in the U.S. "Until something better comes along, these are the fuels that power our country and our way of life."

Roe also said that the industry is in the business of producing oil and gas in an efficient and economical manner, which has been the reason why technology has led to innovations like horizontal, multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, a technology that reduces the previous footprint of 50 wells down to a single well.

During Energy Week, students will deepen their knowledge of regional geology, learn how oil and gas companies hydraulically fracture Mancos shale play to extract oil and gas in the San Juan Basin and hear about other elements, techniques and equipment of the industry.

The work complements the students' science curriculum, Sharpe said.

Energy Week kicks off on Thursday.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.