Going forward, we know what the new year of environmental activism looks like. Activists have told us. They’ve made it perfectly clear. They call it: “Keep it in the ground.”
The campaign is about all fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal. Instead of an “all of the above” energy policy, when it comes to fossil fuels, they want “none of the above.” A big part of the effort is focused on preventing the extraction of fossil fuels on public lands — which is supported by presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton. The recent moratorium of leasing federal lands for coal mining, announced by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, is considered a great victory for “keep it in the ground.”
I wrote about the movement in December. Last month, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion editorial for one of its leaders, Bill McKibben: “How to drive a stake through the heart of zombie fossil fuel.” In it, McKibben states: “In May, a coalition across six continents is being organized to engage in mass civil disobedience to ‘keep it in the ground.’”
While big news items fuel the fight, smaller, symbolic wins are part of the strategy. Introducing the plan late last year, the Hill states: “It stretches into local fights, over small drilling wells, coal mines and infrastructure.”
Here’s what keep it in the ground looks like in the real world — in “local fights” and “over small drilling wells.”
In a suburb of Albuquerque known more for computer chip-making than crude oil extraction, the anti-fossil fuel crowd is doing everything it can to prevent a “small drilling well” from being developed.
In Rio Rancho, New Mexico, the major employer is Intel. It is also home to several call centers — though the Sprint call center just announced it is closing and cutting 394 jobs. New Mexico has the nation’s highest jobless rate: 6.8%.
Rio Rancho is in Sandoval County — which currently, in the northern part of the county, has 600 oil-and-gas wells on tribal or federal lands. According to the NM Tax Research Institute, in 2013, when oil prices were higher, Sandoval County producers shipped 1.08 million barrels of oil worth $86 million and 394.1 million MCF (one MCF = one thousand cubic feet) of natural gas worth $1.6 billion.
After leasing the mineral rights last year, an Oklahoma company, SandRidge Energy Inc., is hoping to drill an exploratory well. The well, which has already received approval from the state Oil and Conversation Division (OCD), is “about four miles outside of the Rio Rancho city limits,” reports the Albuquerque Journal. It will be a vertical well, drilled to a depth of 10,500 feet — which is expected to take about 25 days. Until the well is drilled and logged, engineers will not know whether the resource will warrant development or, if it does, if it will require hydraulic fracturing. The OCD permit is to drill, complete, and produce the well. Jami Grindatto, president and CEO of the Sandoval Economic Alliance, says the environmental footprint would be “small.”
Several previous exploratory wells have been drilled in the Albuquerque Basin that were determined not to be economically viable—though oil was found.
To begin drilling, SandRidge needs a zoning variance from the county. On December 10, the Planning and Zoning Committee held a contentious meeting to hear public comment on the SandRidge application. So many wanted to speak, there wasn’t time, nor space, to accommodate them. Another meeting, in a larger venue, was scheduled for January 28. There, dozens of people spewed generic talking points against fracking; speaking vaguely about pollution, earthquakes, and/or water contamination. The Committee, to no avail, asked presenters to stay on topic and address just this one well—this application.
A few folks braved the hostile crowd and spoke in support of the project — only to be booed.
It was in this atmosphere that the Committee recommended that the County Commissioners deny the request. Essentially, they threw up their hands and acknowledged that they weren’t equipped to deal with the intricacies of the application — which is why such decisions are better made at the state levels, where there are engineers and geologists who understand the process.
The Sandoval County Commissioners may still approve the special use permit at the February 18 meeting — as they are the final decision makers.
In December, Sandoval County Commissioner James Dominguez, District 1, said he “has some major concerns that the drilling could compromise the water supply and air quality in Rio Rancho.” KOAT News cites Dominguez as saying: “I know that eventually, in time, it will pollute our water sources” — this despite the definitive August 2015 EPA study released that confirmed hydraulic fracturing does not pollute the water supply.
In the past few years, when oil prices were higher, Encana and WPX drilled some 200 wells in the same geology, 70 of them in Sandoval County. Not one single instance of any interference, damage, or invasion of fresh water aquifers has occurred. For that matter, over the past 50 years of production in Sandoval County, even with technology and safety standards that were not as advanced or rigorous as todays, there has not been one instance of aquifer harm. Perhaps the upcoming meeting will be an opportunity to provide more factual information to the political decision makers. (Readers are encouraged to send supportive comments to the commissioners and/or attend the February 18 meeting.)
One “small drilling well” outside of a community on the edge of Albuquerque that could create jobs and help the local and state economy could be blocked because of a few dozen agitators who could cause the county to “keep it in the ground.”
One day later, another small band from the anti-fossil-fuel movement also celebrated an almost insignificant victory that adds to the momentum. This one in California.
On January 29, a settlement was reached in a lawsuit environmental groups filed two years against two federal agencies that they claim permitted offshore fracking and other forms of high-pressure well stimulation techniques: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). The settlement requires public notice for any future offshore applications for fracking and acidification. Additionally, the agencies have agreed to provide what’s termed “a programmatic” environmental assessment of the potential impacts of such techniques on the coastal environment.
To read the press releases from the environmental groups, one would think that these government agencies were in cahoots with ExxonMobil and that they were sneaking around, letting the oil companies run amok. In fact, the companies who’ve applied for drilling permits have followed a very stringent application process — under which they were approved. However, once exploratory wells were drilled, they were found not to be good candidates for hydraulic fracturing.
A consulting petroleum geologist, with more than 30 years’ experience — almost exclusively in California — explained it to me this way: “There’s not a lot of hydraulic fracturing going on offshore, because, similar to most of California, it simply isn’t effective. Most of the rocks are adequately fractured by Mother Nature. Generally speaking, fracking is effective in a few places where it has been used without incident since the 1940s. It is not an issue.”
The settlement requires “a programmatic” environmental assessment be completed by May 28 — during which time “the agencies will withhold approval of drilling permits.” Sources I spoke with told me that this, too, was not a big deal — which would explain why ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute agreed not to oppose the settlement. In the current low-priced oil environment companies are not clamoring for new drilling targets. It is believed that once the assessment is complete, the existing requirements will be found to be appropriate and permitting can move forward.
Additionally, offshore rigs are currently shut down in the region — an overreaction to a pipeline break last spring.
So, if this “settlement” is much ado about nothing, why even bring it up? Because, it is an example of those “local fights”; the little “wins” that motivate the “keep it in the ground” movement and keep its spirit up for the bigger fights — like hydraulic fracturing in the deep water Gulf of Mexico.
These two stories are likely just a sampling of the battles being played out in county commissions and government agencies throughout America. As in these cases, a small handful of activists are shaping policy that affects us all and impacts the economics of our communities by, potentially, cutting funding for education and public services.
“Keep it in the ground” is the new face of environmental activism. If those who understand the role energy plays in America and our freedoms don’t engage, don’t attend meetings and send statements, and don’t vote, the policy makers have almost no choice but to think these vocal few represent the many.