John Colson: Explanations due as the air gets thicker

John Colson
Hit & Run

I see in the news that U.S. shale-gas drillers and producers are burning off huge volumes of natural gas, much more than has been publicly acknowledged previously, with an unsurprising rise in fears that the industry is polluting the air at much higher rates than companies have been reporting.

According to a Dec. 25 report in the Bismark Tribune, the operators in the North Dakota Bakken shale fields in 2018 burned off enough excess natural gas “to heat 4.25 million U.S. homes,” or about 527 cubic feet of gas per day.

The report states that the volume flared “could have met the natural gas needs for all of North Dakota and South Dakota, including industrial and commercial demand.”

At the same time, operators in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico have been flaring (that’s what they call it when they simply burn the gas rather than store it) natural gas at twice the rate of prior years, reaching a record rate of 407 million cubic feet per day (CFPD) in late 2018, according to a Dec. 5 report in the Houston Chronicle.

And, the Chronicle reported, that level of flaring in the Permian is expected to reach 600 million CFPD in the near future.

No news was readily available about any similar wasting of natural gas in Colorado’s shale-gas boom, though anyone hanging around in the Colorado River stretch between New Castle and Parachute can plainly see gas being flared at any number of drilling sites, at any given time on any given night.

The industry clearly sees this as business as usual, while others view it as a shameful waste of the resources as well as sending unacceptable amounts of greenhouse gases up into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.


Let’s take a broader look at this phenomenon for a moment, shall we?

For a couple of years now, the industry has been angling for permits and building pipelines to take natural gas from the drilling fields to seaports around the country, with an eye toward exporting the gas to China or other energy-hungry international clients.

That means we have shale-gas operators wasting gas in a big way, even as they are claiming to have done so much to establish U.S. energy independence, even as they maneuver their way into selling gas to other countries that we could use here at home. Are those not mutually contradictory ideas? Or is profit the only motivating factor that should be considered here?

All of this news about the huge amount of natural gas being wasted every day — a circumstance we all should find revolting — comes right after the Colorado Supreme Court decided it was not the justices’ job, nor the job of the state’s oil and gas exploiters, to protect the lives of residents from toxicity, explosions, social dislocation and other effects from the state’s ongoing shale-gas boom.

The Supremes’ ruling actually was a refusal to reconsider a Jan. 14 decision, in response to an appeal of the Jan. 14 ruling by a group of young plaintiffs seeking to strengthen Colorado’s environmental rules pertaining to the industry.

The plaintiffs, supported by the Our Childrens’ Trust organization, tried to get the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to follow state regulations the plaintiffs maintained required the COGCC to ensure energy development does not harm people or the environment.

The COGCC, predictably, rejected that argument, prompting an appeal.

The youths’ appeal first went to Judge Laurie Booras of the state Court of Appeals, according to a report by The Associated Press, who rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, and then to the Supremes, who cited Booras’ opinion in their own rejection of the plaintiffs’ case.

Interestingly, the AP reported that Booras resigned in January after a disciplinary panel found that she used racial slurs and demeaning nicknames for a Native American woman and a Hispanic woman. The panel also found that Booras violated confidentiality rules by telling an unnamed third party that she planned to write an opinion against the young plaintiffs.

So why in the name of honest jurisprudence did the Supremes follow Booras’ lead? Was it simply that the justices were unwilling to wade into the inherently contradictory mission, which directs the agency to protect the health and welfare of state residents but also to promote the oil and gas industry’s effort to pull wealth out of the ground?

Or, perhaps the justices were shy about challenging a ruling by a bigoted appeals court judge who had to resign her judgeship over her racist views?

The justices, according to the AP, did not give a reason for declining to reconsider their backing of Booras’ opinion, but I do not think it should end there.

As noted by Our Children’s Trust, in a statement released after the Supreme Court finding, “The seven young plaintiffs, and all Coloradans, deserve an explanation from the Colorado Supreme Court.”

I believe we also are owed an explanation about the apparently unmonitored flaring of natural gas from wells around the country at the same time, since both these developments have a direct effect on the air we breathe, the water we drink, and so much more.