RIFLE — Once embraced even by conservation groups as a “bridge fuel” and a cleaner alternative to oil and coal, natural gas is no longer viewed as the sturdiest of bridges by the Sierra Club, the group’s national leader said during a visit to Garfield County this week.
“Five or six years ago, natural gas was the bridge fuel, and an opportunity to hold us over to clean energy,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said during a Wednesday visit to Rifle that included an aerial tour of the gas patch and the top of the embattled Roan Plateau.
Now, he said it’s time to pick up the pace in the journey across that bridge, instead of increasing natural gas development on sensitive public lands like the Roan and in the nearby Thompson Divide.
More is now known about the environmental degradation and health impacts caused by natural gas development, including impacts associated with the extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” Brune said.
“What’s also happened is that solar and wind energy have become cheaper and are now competing favorably with coal,” said Brune, who is on a two-week working vacation with his family, including visits to several national parks and monuments in Colorado and the Four Corners area.
Brune said the Wednesday flight over western Garfield County’s gas patch and the Roan, led by pilot Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight, only reinforced his position.
Most impressive in his aerial observation, he said, was how the patchwork of natural gas well pads, drilling sites and processing facilities on the valley floor and up the flanks of the Roan Cliffs was juxtaposed against a handful of large solar farms and smaller rooftop solar PV systems in and around Rifle.
In a post-flight press conference, Brune quoted the noted economist William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”
The upper elevations of the Roan, with its deep canyons and towering waterfalls, “is the kind of place you would see on a Sierra Club calendar,” Brune said. “It’s not a place I would want to see fracked and developed for resource extraction.”
The Sierra Club is among the groups that have successfully challenged federal land leasing on the Roan Plateau for oil and gas development. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is now in the process of formally re-evaluating the leasing rules.
“We shouldn’t have to organize and litigate to protect it,” Brune said. “It should be obvious that these areas need to be protected.”
Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources won’t be easy, and it won’t be overnight, Brune emphasized.
But a 50/50 mix between nonrenewable and renewable resources to meet the world’s energy needs is a reasonable goal within the next couple of decades, he said.
“The transition will be complex and difficult,” Brune said, acknowledging that there will be economic impacts in places like Garfield County that rely on fossil fuel energy development.
“Everyone should have a right to feed their family and pay the rent or mortgage, just as everyone should have a right to clean air and clean water,” Brune said. “We should not pit those rights against each other.”
When it comes time to deal with the economic impacts of slowing the consumption and production of fossil fuels, the Sierra Club is committed to offer its help, “so it’s not created on the backs of the workers who can’t afford it,” Brune said.
“The point is, let’s move,” he said. “It’s time to go in all together on clean, renewable energy.”
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, in a separate interview on Thursday, questioned the Sierra Club’s view of natural gas as “a bridge to nowhere,” as the club’s website declares.
“I still believe we are going to need all of the above, and that natural gas will remain a bridge fuel,” said Jankovsky, a vocal proponent of opening more federal lands to oil and gas development to ease the strain on private lands.
“Colorado has seen the benefits from natural gas, including cleaner air,” he said. “I hope groups like the Sierra Club don’t have a closed mind on this.”
As for the Roan, Jankovsky said the BLM process to review the rules and leasing plan that came out of the previous Environmental Impact Statement should be allowed to proceed without legal interference.
“I do agree that the more sensitive areas of the Roan and elsewhere need to be protected,” Jankovsky added.
Voices on the ground
During his visit, Brune also heard from local residents who say they have been negatively impacted by the natural gas industry in Garfield County, including ill health effects.
Tony Cline told his story of suffering from what his doctor called “fracking sickness” for several months while natural gas wells were being drilled near his home south of Rifle.
“I couldn’t work a full day without taking a two-hour break,” Cline said of the “cold-like” symptoms, including difficulty breathing and persistent fatigue. “It cleared up when the fracking stopped.”
His mother, Patricia Cline, also described an incident last fall when she was driving up the private road to her house and encountered a truck hauling drilling equipment that had gotten caught up in a power line.
As she tried to pass, an electric jolt blew a tire off the truck, which hit her Jeep, knocking it into the ditch and discharging the air bag.
Cline said her vehicle suffered major damage, and she temporarily lost vision in one eye and still has ringing in her ear to this day.
Worse yet, “I could have been killed,” she said.
“It all could have been eliminated if they had just had gate keepers on the road telling me not to proceed,” Cline said.
Rick Roles, a local sheep and goat herder who holds down his family ranch outside Rifle, told Brune that the drilling industry has “destroyed my entire life.”
Not only has he suffered health effects he attributes to the presence of natural gas wells close to his home, his livestock has suffered.
“I’ve seen things that would scare the hell out of you in my livestock,” Roles said of birth defects in his goats and horses and routine still births.
Industry officials maintain there is no evidence that natural gas activity is to blame for the health problems, either in humans or livestock.
Brune said more accountability related to health and safety is needed for energy companies.
“Nobody should have to sacrifice their health in order to get a small amount of energy,” he said.
Brune’s western states tour is part of the Sierra Club’s new “Our Wild America” campaign, which is focused on conservation efforts around national parks and national monument designations.