RFTA gets $365,000 grant for cleaner buses | AspenTimes.com
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RFTA gets $365,000 grant for cleaner buses

CARBONDALE – The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority Thursday will consider approving an environmental policy statement on natural-gas extraction just hours before accepting a $365,000 grant from a company that helped invent the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing.

RFTA’s board of directors, meeting in Carbondale, will review a draft policy statement that lays out the bus agency’s expectations for the exploration and extraction of natural gas. The draft, proposed by RFTA staff, states in full, “RFTA expects the gas and oil industry to adhere to industry best practices when exploring for, extracting, and delivering the energy resources upon which RFTA relies and, to the best of its ability, RFTA will attempt to do business with only those that do. Additionally, RFTA does not support exploration or drilling for natural resources in environmentally sensitive areas.”

RFTA’s board declined in November to pass a proposed policy statement opposing natural gas exploration in the Thompson Divide area, west of Carbondale. The board said it didn’t want to take a specific stand in that battle. Instead, board members said they would consider a general statement on gas extraction. The board is reviewing a policy because it might invest in compressed natural gas to power some of its buses.

But even a general statement on natural-gas extraction poses challenges.

“How do we define environmentally sensitive areas?” said RFTA board member and Snowmass Village Councilman John Wilkinson. The draft policy statement is open to a lot of interpretation, he said. He wants the policy to state simply that RFTA expects oil and gas companies to adhere to industry best standards.

“We’re not going to call up (a big oil company) and say, ‘Send us some fracking fluids for our buses,'” Wilkinson said.

While RFTA debates its environmental policy on natural-gas production, it is preparing to accept the $365,000 grant from EnCana Oil and Gas, one of the biggest natural-gas producers in North America. RFTA applied for and received the grant to help defray the cost of retrofitting 22 buses in its fleet to run on compressed natural gas.

Natural gas emits substantially fewer greenhouse gases than diesel fuel or gasoline. It’s also cheaper, so RFTA can save money in the long run by switching its fuel source. Wilkinson said he is wholeheartedly behind using a cleaner-burning domestic fuel rather than relying on imported oil.

Despite the advantages of natural gas, an argument could be made that RFTA is taking funds from a company that doesn’t pass the litmus test of its proposed policy statement. EnCana’s fracking activity around Pavillion, Wyo., was studied extensively by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A report released in December concluded that toxic fluids from gas drilling likely contaminated shallow groundwater. The effects of fracking on people who live around wells is under debate in several states, including Colorado.

In the fracking process, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground at high pressure to release small amounts of methane or oil.

EnCana denies the link between its drilling and groundwater contamination in Wyoming.

Closer to home, EnCana was fined $371,200 by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2004 after natural gas from a well in Garfield County surfaced in West Divide Creek south of Silt.

RFTA board member and Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt said she doesn’t believe the bus agency will be running afoul of its proposed policy if it accepts money from EnCana.

“The policy is about who you contract with for fuel, which has nothing to do with EnCana’s grant,” Whitsitt said. EnCana is providing money for infrastructure to run buses on compressed natural gas – it’s not providing the natural gas. After consulting with RFTA staff, she said it was her understanding that the bus agency will vet vendors to try to ensure that its natural-gas supply is extracted in a way that’s consistent with its proposed policy.

Whitsitt said her bigger concern over the EnCana grant is that there are “no strings attached.” She didn’t want RFTA’s buses advertising the EnCana company name in return for the grant.

“There cannot be a tie,” she said.

Even if EnCana has a tainted record with its fracking practices – which Whitsitt acknowledged she hasn’t had time to research – the grant is providing an important public benefit, she said. Any time a public agency can leverage private funds, it’s saving public funds.

“When it’s helping RFTA, it’s helping thousands of people” who are riding mass transit, Whitsitt said.

RFTA won’t make the final decision on whether to buy buses that run on compressed natural gas until March. The EnCana grant is contingent on moving ahead with that plan.

The policy on environmental standards for natural-gas extraction is expected to be reviewed Thursday.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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