The O. Zone

Frack attack via music video, and chemical revelation Texas-style

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMay 23, 2011

A new music video called “My Water's On Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song)” by David Holmes and journalism students at New York University's Studio 20 is making the rounds after being posted on the Pulitzer Prize-winning website ProPublica.

The video (see below) was produced in conjunction with ProPublica's more than three-year investigation into the common but controversial natural gas drilling procedure called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” It's a process used in more than 90 percent of the natural gas wells in the nation, including extensively on Colorado's Western Slope and Front Range.

David O. Williams

The process and the controversy require a paragraph or two to explain in every story on the topic, forcing an almost cut-and-paste process that goes something like this: “Hydraulic fracturing is a natural gas drilling procedure that involves injecting mostly water and sand, but also some toxic chemicals, under very high pressure deep into gas wells in order to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas. Critics are concerned that undisclosed chemicals are making their way into drinking water supplies closer to the surface. The oil and gas industry denies such allegations and says it must keep the chemicals secret for proprietary reasons.”

A mouthful of mumbo jumbo, right? This music video, while it comes with a clear slant on the topic, does a much better job of explaining the process.

If you want to hear me on the radio talking up this topic, which I've done a lot of reporting on over the past three years, click here to hear a special reporters roundtable on David Sirota's talk radio show on 760 AM in Denver. The show aired Friday, May 13.

Turns out even Texas -- which someone in the environmental community portrayed to me as a "real" oil and gas state -- is ahead of Colorado on some aspects of drilling regulation.

Even as Colorado oil and gas officials continue to resist attempts by some members of the state's congressional delegation to pass federal law compelling the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, Texas could soon establish a national model for fracking transparency.

The Associated Press last week reported a bill that would require mandatory disclosure of many of the chemicals used in the fracking process was approved by the state House and is now being considered by the Senate. “The bill in its current form has widespread support among both Republicans and Democrats and GOP Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign it,” according to AP.

While some environmental groups say the bill doesn't go far enough because companies would only have to post on the Web the maximum concentrations of chemicals regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they also acknowledge it's a big first step in a state dominated by business-friendly Republicans.

The GOP has a super-majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, and industry officials didn't even think the controversial process of fracking – in which water, sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into gas wells to fracture tight underground geological formations and free up more gas – would be on the agenda this session.

But AP reports Texas Rep. James Keffer, a GOP energy committee chairman who shepherded the bill to passage in the House, became increasingly convinced public fears about fracking needed to be addressed as drilling occurs closer and closer to residential areas.

“There are concerns: What's going down the hole? Is it poisonous? What is it doing to the water supply?” Keffer told AP. “I felt like the time had to come to get it off the table.”

Colorado regulators say the current state rules for oil and gas drilling adequately cover the fracking process and that federal oversight could pull staff from other important environmental concerns. They're also touting a voluntary website where companies can list chemicals used in fracking. Most companies want to keep the proportions of those chemicals secret for proprietary reasons.

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