Bill Barrett Corp and the Halliburton Loophole Threaten Rockies

Since Earth Day is so last week's news, we can get back to examining the fossil fuel industries' numerous recent contributions to the environment. BP's deadly oil rig fiasco is a hot news topic since it is leaking 42,000 gallons of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico and now threatens the Louisiana coast. But there have been a slew of other recent spills from oil, gas and coal operations that typify the constant pollution problem with fossil fuels.

The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing to get at hard-to-reach hydrocarbon supplies has lots of folks wondering whether the next fossil fuel disaster might happen in the Rocky Mountains or elsewhere at the hands of the fracking natural gas industry. The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing - blasting a mixture of toxic chemicals, sand and water into rock formations to break apart rock and release hydrocarbons - is now used in some 90 percent of extraction projects targeting unconventional shale gas and coalbed methane in the U.S.

Increasing reliance on such techniques nationwide has heightened concern among citizens living near these projects, who fear the fracking could have devastating consequences for drinking water supplies.

There are plenty of documented examples of fracking operations contaminating water supplies that provide reason to worry. From Pennsylvania, to New York, to Wyoming, to New Mexico, to Ohio, to Virginia, to Arkansas, to Colorado, many families have watched their drinking water supplies fall victim to contamination thanks to hydraulic fracturing. Some have faced the grim discovery that the formerly pristine water entering their homes is, in several documented cases, flammable due to high levels of methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas. Yes, flammable tap water, brought to you by the natural gas industry.

For example, natural gas drilling has wrecked the drinking water supplies of at least 15 families in the northern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, where Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas targets Marcellus Shale. The problem first came to light when Dimock resident Norma Fiorentino's water well famously blew up on New Year's Day 2009, tossing shards of an 8-foot concrete slab onto her lawn. The source of the explosion was methane buildup thanks to Cabot's fracking operations.

This month, in one of the largest punitive actions in Pennsylvania DEP history, the agency fined Cabot $240,000, ordered it to cap three of its active wells, and to permanently provide drinking water to 14 of the affected families.

That's a step in the right direction, although Cabot's cavalier response to the residents when the contamination problems surfaced was pretty horrifying:

"When our drinking water became contaminated with methane, we asked Cabot what to do. They said, 'Oh, let it sit for thirty seconds 'til the bubbles settle down, then you can drink it,'" Dimock resident Jean Carter said last Monday. "But I didn't feel good for a long time; I felt light-headed and dizzy, with a lot of headaches. My health went down." Carter said she and her husband Ronald spent $6000 for water filtration systems for their household and their son's household. But even that was inadequate to protect their health. The family was forced to bring all its drinking water in from elsewhere.

Water contamination from hydraulic fracturing isn't the only threat of natural gas extraction, there are oil spills and damage to wildlife habitat and cultural resources to deal with as well.

Earlier this month, Bill Barrett Corporation (NYSE: BBG), a Denver-based natural gas drilling outfit, reported an oil spill into Utah's Nine Mile Creek from its Dry Canyon Compressor Station. Barrett Corp claims to have found no evidence of water pollution outside the affected area, though it took the company two days to "contain" the spill. Or did they?

A spokesman for the Utah Division of Oil Gas & Mining dubbed it "an unfortunate little spill," and acknowledged that the source of the seepage has yet to be identified.

"The leakage certainly traveled downstream, but they were able to contain it, although our department does not yet know if they found the source."

The spokesman reiterated that there should be no major environmental damage, "as long as they locate the source of the leak."

How can the spill be considered "contained" if neither Barrett nor local officials know what the source of the spill was? Regardless, an "unfortunate little spill" is still a spill. Will "those mistakes" happen on the Roan?

The Sun Advocate, a local newspaper, notes that, "Ironically, the incident took place shortly after the Barrett Corp. was recently given a wildlife award in Moab."

Adding to the farce, Bill Barrett Corp spokesman Jim Felton had the nerve to tell Colorado newspaper The Daily Sentinel that his company doesn't make "those mistakes" and would never spill anything on Colorado's Roan Plateau, fully four days after his company had discovered oil spilling into Utah's Nine Mile Creek.

Bill Barrett spokesman Jim Felton said past spills around the plateau took place because of operator error.

"We're not going to make those mistakes," he said, citing the decades of experience company personnel have in the area.

It wasn't the first time that Bill Barrett Corp had erred at Nine Mile Creek, either.

In 2004, Utah water quality officials said Barrett Corp failed to obtain permits to replace portions of its old natural-gas pipeline across Nine Mile Creek in at least two locations not authorized by environmental regulators.

Nine Mile Creek is a tributary of the Green River, home to four endangered fish species.

Pressure from a coalition of historic conservation and preservation groups recently led the Bureau of Land Management to agree to limit its use of the egregious "categorical exclusions" loophole that allowed companies to drill multiple wells after a single environmental impact statement, just one of the Bush administration's gifts to the fossil fuel industry in the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

In a recent legal settlement, BLM agreed to limit its use of this loophole to grant approvals for natural gas wells in areas of historic, cultural and ecological importance, including Utah's Nine Mile Canyon and West Tavaputs Plateau, without a full evaluation of potential harm to environmental, cultural or historic resources.

This important BLM move does not bode well for Bill Barrett Corporation, which has plans to drill 800 gas wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau and is awaiting the outcome of BLM's environmental impact study of its plans, due out this summer.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2004 that Bill Barrett Corp uses "helicopters, explosives and thumper trucks to pinpoint deposits of natural gas more than 10,000 feet below the surface in a 57,500-acre swath of public land on the West Tavaputs Plateau."

The 40-mile dirt road that Barrett's trucks travel through Nine Mile canyon to the West Tavaputs Plateau gas field contains more than 10,000 archaeological sites, including walls of pictographs and petroglyphs that are sacred to the Hopi nation. Barrett has over 100 oil wells in current production on the plateau, with plans to add 700 more. The pictographs and artifacts, some of which date back thousands of years, are already threatened with corrosion by the dust stirred up by Barrett's current traffic. The increase of industrial traffic from Barrett's expansion poses an even greater threat to the sacred rock art, not to mention the implications for the area's water quality from so much fracking activity.

The situation is even more grim in Colorado, where Barrett Corp has said it may drill 3,000 wells on the Roan Plateau in the next couple decades, far more than the 800 wells it envisions in Utah's West Tavuputs. The top of the Roan Plateau is one of the four most biologically rich areas in the State of Colorado. The other three areas have already been protected as part of the National Park System, but not the Roan, despite the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) observation that although the Roan "is clearly of comparable biological significance," providing a home to genetically pure Colorado River Cutthroat Trout and some of North America's rarest plants. It also provides habitat for prize herds of elk and deer.

Despite the BLM decision to close the "categorical exclusions" loophole, Barrett Corp. continues to enjoy the fact that hydraulic fracturing is exempt from scrutiny under the Safe Drinking Water Act, thanks to the Halliburton loophole, an even larger and more blatant industry giveaway also inserted into the 2005 energy bill at the behest of Vice President Cheney, Halliburton's former CEO. Halliburton pioneered the fracing technique in the 1950s, and reportedly now earns about $1.5 Billion annually from hydraulic fracturing.

But now that Congress and regulatory agencies are taking a closer look at the implications of hydraulic fracturing, the Halliburton loophole protecting frackers is beginning to get the scrutiny it deserves.

The EPA has been investigating whether fracking caused groundwater contamination in the Pavillion area in central Wyoming, and a final report is expected in May. Initial results from EPA indicate that fracking was the cause of the contamination.

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal pressured a Halliburton attorney at a hearing earlier this month, asking the company to disclose the ingredients in its fracking fluid, a tightly guarded secret among manufacturers.

The Halliburton attorney shrugged off the inquiry, stating that "When you talk about a complete list of ingredients, you're getting fairly deep into the proprietary formula itself."

Halliburton further argued that "fracking chemicals, once they're put into service within well bores, are heavily diluted by water and sand," according to Associated Press coverage.

Ah, yes, the good ole excuse so often used by industry and co-opted regulatory agencies - "the solution to pollution is dilution" - a mantra that allowed decades of dumping everything from PCBs to dioxin to perfluorinated chemicals fine and dandy as long as there's enough water around in the environment to dilute the toxic stuff to the point where it falls below certain thresholds (often set arbitrarily based on economics and not science). It doesn't work very well with fracking fluids.

Governor Freudenthal said he wasn't going to continue relying on industry's word that it doesn't use certain chemicals, such as diesel, in fracking. He said wants more than just industry reassurance that is correct.

"I want to know that what I'm saying to the public is true," he said, pressing for complete disclosure of fracking ingredients from Halliburton and other hydraulic fracturing chemical suppliers.

Will that truth ever emerge? Not if vested interests like Barrett Corp and Halliburton prevail.

Bill Barrett Corp continues to pay retainers to high-powered DC lobbyists, doling out $20,000 to NES, Inc in the first quarter of 2010 for lobbyists Marc Himmelstein and Kent Burton to work their magic in both houses of Congress and the Bureau of Land Management. NES listed "Energy production in Rockies" and "Access to public lands" as the specific issues it worked on last quarter for Barrett.

Barrett Corp paid out another $20,000 in the first quarter to Brownstein Hyatt, which listed "Resource management plans for federal lands" as the specific issue that its two lobbyists, Jacob Johnson and C. Kyle Simpson, worked on behalf of Barrett Corp, targeting both houses of Congress and the Interior Department.

Last year, Barrett paid the same two lobbying firms $320,000 to curry favor on the Hill, more than five times the amount Barrett spent on lobbying in each of the previous five years.

Since it already has plenty of access to public lands on West Tavaputs and the Roan, what else does Barrett Corp need to discuss so urgently with Washington bureaucrats?

Perhaps the desire to keep doing business as usual, taking full advantage of the Bush/Cheney Halliburton loophole gift, without worrying about pesky distractions like public health and drinking water quality?