The ‘Promised Land’ Problem for Activists

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The dismal commercial showing of the film adds insult to injury for the activists who hoped it would boost their misinformation campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing and eliminate oil and gas development on American soil.

By Simon Lomax

“Promised Land,” the anti-drilling movie starring Matt Damon, has officially backfired on environmental activists. They hoped the film would take the box office by storm, win an Oscar, and persuade the overwhelming majority of Americans who support domestic oil and gas production to suddenly change their minds. In fact, in the days before the national release of “Promised Land,” the Associated Press reported environmental groups were “positively giddy” about how the film would boost their misinformation campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing and eliminate oil and gas development on American soil. It was even called an “epic film” by Food & Water Watch – the Washington, D.C. group that’s orchestrating most of the anti-energy activism in Colorado.






But “Promised Land” was a flop. It opened nationally in close to 1,700 theaters, but within two weeks, all but 134 theaters had dropped the movie due to low ticket sales. According to the L.A. Times, “Promised Land” cost $15 million to produce, but by late January, it grossed less than $8 million at the box office. Adding insult to financial injury, the movie got bad reviews, failed to win a single nomination during awards season, and is less popular on Facebook than, a website my colleagues and I practically built with duct tape and baling wire to tell the other side of the story. And even before the film was released, it was revealed “Promised Land” received financial support from the United Arab Emirates, a member of the OPEC foreign oil cartel with a clear interest in suppressing U.S. energy production.

The real losers in the “Promised Land” debacle, however, are the environmental activists who pinned their hopes on a Hollywood movie to make the case against hydraulic fracturing. By promoting a work of fiction as “real life,” the activists proved just how little they care about the facts. They gambled that nobody would notice their dishonesty if “Promised Land” was a runaway success and deceived the public into opposing a fundamentally safe technology that’s creating jobs, boosting the economy, bolstering the nation’s energy security and cutting people’s energy bills. But when the movie failed, the activists lost their bet, and their credibility along with it.

Unfortunately, this probably won’t stop activist groups from peddling their fictional talking points as they continue to try to mislead citizens, elected officials, state regulators and the news media. So, in the interests of promoting a serious discussion about oil and gas development in Colorado, here are some of the worst examples of those talking points and just some of the facts that explain why they’re wrong.

CREDO Action: “Fracking is inherently dangerous.”

That’s not true, according to President Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator and attorney general. “There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking,” Salazar told Congress last year. “My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.” Salazar’s comments match the conclusions of a report from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council, which found hydraulic fracturing is “safe and effective” and a “key technology” for producing affordable energy in America.

Sierra Club: “Fracking contaminates groundwater.”

Not true. Hydraulic fracturing takes place thousands of feet below ground, in many cases more than a mile underground. According to Stanford University geophysicist Mark Zoback, an adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, there has never been a case of fracturing fluids migrating through thousands of feet of impermeable rock into shallow drinking water wells. The process “is typically done at depths of around 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and drinking water is usually pumped from shallow aquifers, no more than one or two hundred feet below the surface,” Zoback says. “Fracturing fluids have not contaminated any water supply and with that much distance to an aquifer, it is very unlikely they could.” Zoback’s view has been affirmed by U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson a number of times, and by a recent study from the U.S.Geological Survey in Louisiana’s Fayetteville Shale, which found “no groundwater contamination associated with gas production” from hydraulic fracturing. And in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper has said after testing thousands of the state’s water wells, “we can’t find frack fluid in the water.”

Save Colorado from Fracking: “How can we afford to have millions of gallons of water wasted by fracking?”

Environmental activists in Colorado and other Western states have a clear strategy to manipulate the fear of drought and water shortages into fear of the oil and gas industry. But it’s a dishonest line of attack that takes the “millions of gallons of water” used in the hydraulic fracturing process completely out of context.

Colorado’s water use can be measured in trillions of gallons, and according to a joint report from three state agencies, “the amount of water currently used for hydraulic fracturing in Colorado is a small portion of the total amount of water used.” In fact, the report finds hydraulic fracturing accounts for 0.08 percent of the state’s water consumption. Compared to other sources, this is one-fifth the amount used by power plants, roughly 100 times less than municipal and industrial demand, and 1,000 times less than agriculture, the state’s biggest water user. Hydraulic fracturing’s water use is expected to rise in the next few years, but only to “slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the total water used,” according to the report.

The activists also leave out another critical factor from their talking points – water intensity, or the amount of water consumed for every unit of energy produced. Researchers at Harvard University studied the water intensity of natural gas produced from deep shale formations with the help of hydraulic fracturing and found it was 1,000 times lower than the water intensity of renewable biofuels, such as ethanol. Why? Because the hydraulic fracturing process lasts only a matter of days, but shale gas wells keep producing energy for many years, which dramatically lowers water intensity. “The increased role of shale gas in the U.S. energy sector could result in reduced water consumption,” the Harvard study said.

In a separate paper, another team of researchers from Colorado State University and oil and gas producer Noble Energy found the water intensity of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas was “one of the lowest” of all energy sources, and “comparable with solar energy.”

Food & Water Watch: “Air quality [on the Front Range] is 10 times worse than Houston, Texas, as a result of oil and gas drilling.”

This is completely false. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency closely monitors ground-level ozone or smog in 41 major metropolitan areas. Houston is near the bottom of the list, ranked 33rd in air quality, while the nine-county Denver area ties for second place.

That doesn’t make Denver’s air quality perfect, of course. Like any big city with large numbers of cars, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities, it has smog. But emissions from oil and gas development, which are tightly regulated under state and federal law, are not making the problem worse. “In recent years, the trend has been downward,” with average smog levels that “fluctuate within the amount of variance seen for the last several years,” according to a statewide report from the Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division. EPA data also show similar fluctuations around Denver, with a recent decline. These smog observations were recorded during a major expansion of energy production in Colorado. For example, from 2006 to 2011, oil and natural gas production in Colorado increased by 59 percent and 36 percent respectively.

Food & Water Watch: “Fracking drives down property values.”

If this were true, then Colorado’s real estate market would have been hit harder by the 2007-2009 national collapse in housing prices, and would have recovered more slowly than other parts of the country, because oil and gas production increased dramatically during this time.

The facts tell a very different story. According to NBC News, Colorado real estate “was not badly damaged when the housing bubble broke,” and the state has the fifth-strongest housing market in the country. In the Denver metropolitan area, economic development officials say home prices “have weathered the market’s recent weakness much better than prices nationwide,” and increased by more than 11 percent last year.  Meanwhile in Weld County, which has about 19,000 oil and gas wells, the statistics tell a story that’s just as good or even a little better. In the county that has more oil and gas wells than any other county in the U.S., median home prices rose by 12 percent last year, according to IRES MLS data.

This is no surprise, of course. The real estate market does better when the economy does better, and according to Englewood-based consulting firm, IHS, the energy production tied to hydraulic fracturing makes a huge contribution to the state’s economy. It supports 77,000 jobs, adds $11 billion in economic value and generates $1.4 billion in Colorado state and local taxes each year.

Simon Lomax is the Denver-based research director of Energy In Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. Good work! The TRUTH needs to be told. As a long time industry employee, I am FED UP with all the propoganda being spewed out by the “activists.” Guess what? Most of these folks are not qualified to be an “activist.” I am a regulatory manager and when I go before a state conservation commission on any regulated matter I have to testify UNDER OATH and every word is on official record. My company is liable under numerous civil & criminal statutes for the documents placed on public record. I am responsible EVERY DAY to my employer to have our operations in full compliance with a myriad of federal, state & local rules & regulations. I’d submit guys like ME are the REAL ACTIVISTS! In over 30 years in the business, I’ve never woken up one morning with ANY intent to break the law. Can’t say I’ve worked with anyone else, be it geologist, engineer, etc. that sees it any differently. So, let’s take it to these folks. They DO NOT have any moral HIGH GROUND on these issues. The people in our industry drink the same water & breathe the same air as our detractors do…

  2. The American public may finally be waking up to the deceit and misinformation dissemniated by environmental obstructionists.

    Fact: When political ideology collides with economic reality, economics ALWAYS wins, either in the short- or long-run. Americans vote their pocketbook. In the case of “Promised Land” they double-dipped with their votes. The public saw through the lies. And, the movie itself sucks.

    Now, if only everyone would reject Gore’s book. The Fat Man doesn’t need the money. He just sold out to an Arab oil company for hundreds of millions.

    Hypocrisy abounds in the “sustainable energy” movement.

  3. You mention Food and Water Watch as a ‘Washington DC based’ group. Where is IPAMS/Energy In Depth based?

    And, as an activist that has been working in CO for over a decade on these issues, and in touch with hundreds of more like me, the notion that F&WW is responsible for most of the citizens demanding more say in how industrial activity occurs in their communities, often at the hands of ‘foreign-based’ companies…is malarkey. As a industry operative either you know that (and hence are, what do we call it again…oh yeah, lying) or terribly incompetent.

  4. Hey Randy. Great to hear from you and I’d like to pick your brain a bit. I hear stories about mechanical failure at well sites that leads to emissions that make nearby residents sick. I also hear that about 40% of spills in CO reach groundwater. I’d like to talk with you about how we can prevent that.

  5. Questions: Well bore integrity failure history in CO? fugitive emissions data in CO? cost benefit analysis of cutting corners on pollution controls v/s risk of serious fine? Frequency of fugitive emissions inspection at well sites? PPM of VOCs traceable to gas wells in La Salle, CO?

  6. Fred, I’ll consider sending you an e-mail (directly), but quite frankly, I see a LOT of numbers thrown around that I have NO IDEA where folks are coming up with them. 40% of spills in Colorado reach groundwater…Really? I’ll give you a specific (real world) example that came up in my work yesterday. We are preparing our 2012 annual EPA Subpart W (greenhouse gas) emission reports. I saw a study (somewhere) that claimed 9% of total methane produced by industry leaks to atmosphere on an average wellsite. I looked at our 2011 annual GHG report and based on our actual data accumulated, we calculated our escaped methane at .4%. Now, we are not satisfied with that, but 1 in every 250 molecules is escaping in our case, not 1 in ELEVEN. That is a statistically significant difference. Put a simpler way, if that average (thief emissions) was closer to that 9% claim for many operators, there would be a LOT more explosions & fires on record. A little knowledge of basic physics and some common sense will tell you that.

    As far as emissions making people sick, I’ll address this in a different way. I am not about to try to refute anyone’s claims (here) in Colorado in that regard. For several years (now) I have been in favor of more comprehensive air studies and I am encouraged by the recent initiatives (by Gov. Hickenlooper) to promote emissions studies. Peer reviewed science is a good thing. In summation, let me pose a question. If the level & concentration of “dangerous” chemicals persistently existed on industry locations as often claimed, then the number of medical claims by industry employees would be ASTRONOMICAL, right? Those folks are RIGHT ON THE LOCATION, not several hundred feet away. With all the tens of thousands of workers exposed to hundreds of thousands of frac jobs & completions, how could industry possibly hide that? I am not aware of any such case history, period. Again, just looking at facts and first hand knowledge and trying to deduce reasonable conclusions…

  7. Thanks Randy. Please do email me. We can probably have a better conversation privately. From what I’ve heard pollution problems vary widely from company to company. You seem like someone who is paying attention and cares so I would assume the same of your company. I believe the 40% number comes from an analysis of COGCC reports. The toxic air emission problems that I’ve heard about occur after completion, when parts break down. Although, industry representatives at the CSU gas symposium said that a lot of the problems occur due to “someone leaving a valve open”. I was very surprised to hear them make such a statement.

  8. @fred and randy. Actually, if you don’t mind me listening in, could you kindly CC me on your email discussion? ewleaver AT comcast DOT net.

    I stumbled across this site while trying to complete a short review of some of the research articles that have gained your interest. These would be “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations” by Howarth et al., “A commentary on `The greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas in shale formations’” by Cathles et al., and “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development:
    response to Cathles et al”\%2Fs10584-012-0401-0.

    Its the Howarth group’s contention that 3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale gas escapes during the production lifetime of the well. This is from all sources, from well completion to storage, transmission, and distribution. For the latter, tight gas is the same as for conventional, its just during flowback and drillout that they differ. Not that they necessarily have to, but that was the state of practice in the Marcellus at the time of their study. The articles are well worth reading.

    The 9% number comes from a NOAA areal survey over production in the Uintah Basin. I haven’t read up on it myself to see what it entails, the reference I have is to a Joe Romm post:

    As Howarth et al. make clear, fugitive methane is a very legitimate concern, and its critical that we get accurate numbers from all participants. Hope you can help!

    Thanks, Ed

  9. Broken link dept. Should be “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.”
    (The % sign had escaped me. Sorry.)

  10. Understand one thing. I do not purport to be an air scientist or expert in that particular segment. That is a very specialized arena and my experience in the oilfield (primarily) is through the compliance side as opposed to the scientific end. As far as Howarth, I believe there have been a number of articles questioning some of his findings. That said, I do see a need for more peer reviewed scientific studies so the facts on routine oil & gas operations are out there…

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