President Barack Obama spent his last campaign and his first term championing clean and renewable energy sources, but when it comes down to it, he could be considered the “oil president” just as easily.
Since the Baltimore Post-Examiner already has run a story saying the president has won re-election, I can write this without too much concern about swaying any independent votes, which is not my intention. But we can’t ignore that the clean energy president, who has been vilified for various green projects that haven’t worked out, has probably overseen the largest boom in oil production and drilling since perhaps when Drake put his first drill bit in the Pennsylvania dirt in 1859. It also has been one of the best times for clean energy in history as well. While the Obama administration was at the helm of our oil futures:
- North Dakota has suddenly become a world power in oil drilling, passing that great state of Alaska to put itself in second place in terms of production. Texas remains number one and will remain that way as the fracking boom continues.
- Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has become part of the national vernacular and has a cottage industry of a following over its every move. Fracking is the latest breakthrough in drilling that takes chemical-laden liquid and forces it into cracks in the earth to unleash natural gas and oil from previously inaccessible terrain. It has allowed companies to easily expand horizontal drilling efforts to dodge complaints from landowners about mineral rights underneath their home.
Fracking has been moving so fast regulators can’t keep up, especially the federal government. The quest for the best fracking sand has put huge holes all over the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. In Wisconsin, over 100 frac mines were approved before any municipality was able to slow them down through local zoning ordinances.
The number of Badger State mines went from 20 in 2011 to over 100 in 2012. The lack of zoning created a veritable free-for-all for sand mine prospectors. Wisconsin just saw its first county, Buffalo County, vote against sand mine. There is also the lack of discussion of what frac sand mining does to the environment.
Neighbors seem to be getting upset that their once tranquil countryside home are now encircled with flying toxic silica and dust-kicking semis. But they have had little recourse against the fast-moving mining effort. Fracking itself has been pretty much unregulated by the federal government, leaving the usual quilt of hodge-podge state regulations, which are regularly being challenged by the drilling folks. Not until recently have some states tried to get the industry on the same page, requiring drilling companies to disclose what they are using in the chemical/liquid mixture injected into the bedrock to force the gas and oil out.
At least seven states–Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas–require companies to post what chemicals they are using in their frac fluid on the Website. Utah looks like it will be next. But there remains clamoring by citizens for something more concrete. Seventeen environmental groups asked the Environmental Protection Agency this month to set some nationwide standards.
The federal government is so far behind in terms of getting a handle on the drillers, anything it does is being viewed as inconsequential. A Utah state official last week called the Feds approach as “redundant” and meaningless to what the states have been doing. But they haven’t been doing much, as some, like in Ohio, are waiting for the feds to step in. Other states, like New York, have banned fracking until it can figure out what and how to regulate.
- The fracking boom has created a frontier attitude in the Bakken Field of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, where oil production increased 69 percent over the past year. (Montana has yet to get in on the oil to the extent of its neighbor, but it is a key issue in the gubernatorial race there that will be settled Nov. 6. Both major party candidates can’t wait to get a piece of the action.)
It’s a frontier like the old west out there, with such new towns sporting droll names as ‘Man Camp.’ But that part of North Dakota also has as a locale moniker, “New Town. Projections are that the boom will continue for decades and it’s creating a great strain on infrastructure. Millions of dollars in power plants, pipelines and roads are being planned. Pipeline access is also going to get very expensive to those who don’t have one. One smaller North Dakota drilling firm needs to get its oil on the main pipeline coming out of North Dakota and to refineries in the south. But Enbridge, the Canadian pipeline giant that own a good piece of the pipes in the Midwest, wants it to pay $1 billion to upgrade some pumping stations for it to get in on the flow.
- The pipeline pressure is heightened in part by the slow progress of the proposed Keystone XL line from the Alberta oil sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Many questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered over safety and threats to the environment over the project.
The Obama administration was taking heat for moving slow on the pipe, but the clamor has subsided as other plans have presented themselves. The pace of Keystone has allowed other players, such as Alberta-based Enbridge to try and upgrade its pipeline flows to capitalize on the newfound oil. Enbridge, despite being the cause of a major oil spill in Michigan in July 2010, is trying to expand its capacity that very same pipeline that goes through Michigan to Canada. The line expansion is being challenged in court since municipalities have been sidetracked in the process by Enbridge’s interpretation of state or federal regulations, applying them at any given time to suit its needs.
- The two largest oil spills in the nation’s history have occurred in the past two years under the Obama administration’s watch. The BP Oil Spill was in April 2010 and in the course of its leaking for three months, became the largest accidental oil spill in history, dumping an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
In July 2010, an Enbridge-run pipeline near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan burst and the ensuing six-foot hole gushed 850,000 barrels into a tributary of the river. Two years later parts of the river are still closed to the public. Another Enbridge-run pipeline leaked 1,200 barrels of oil in July near the Wisconsin Dells. A 55,000-gallon gasoline spill from West Shore Pipeline this summer near Milwaukee has affected about 300 residents’ wells.
- This summer was supposed to see the first offshore drilling effort in the Arctic Ocean since the 1990s. The feds gave Shell permits in 2007 to drill. After playing cat and mouse with opposition from the Inupiaq communities in northern Alaska and environmentalists, Shell this summer then played back and forth with Arctic Ocean ice flows, quitting after one day in September. For the record, its drill bit did penetrate the ocean floor, making it an official drill.
- The Army Corps of Engineers last week granted a permit to Exxon to open up an oil and natural gas field at Point Thompson, about 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. The field is supposed to contain nearly 25 percent of the gas reserves on the North Slope. Exxon says the project will create an estimated 600 to 700 jobs from 2013 to 2016, with up to 2,400 jobs during peak construction.
- All this newfound oil and natural gas has heightened talks for dramatically increasing exports of oil and natural gas. The administration is already putting together new rules for exporting liquefied natural gas, but not fast enough for that industry. Big oil is arguing that U.S. oil export rules should be changed to allow for exports. And the new pipeline construction—especially that by Enbridge—is being geared more toward getting the oil from Alberta and North Dakota to the east coast for exporting. The pressure to build Keystone XL is subsiding in part, because some in the industry think it could be better used for exporting oil to the coast and not refineries in the south.
Some industry predictions say the U.S. could become the next Middle East. Where have we heard that before?
- After Obama took over, conservative talk radio continuously bemoaned that a refinery hadn’t been built in the U.S. in decades. Well, cry no more. The country’s first new oil refinery in 30 years was approved in October. Three tribes in North Dakota got the go-ahead to build a $400 million refinery in northwest North Dakota. It will produce 13,000 barrels of diesel fuel, gasoline and propane. Ground break is set for spring.
Both Romney and Obama were not asked nor did they address global warming issues in their three debates. It’s not a hard thing to do, with most of the stump speeches talk of energy independence, and pursuing domestic drilling opportunities with abandon. Besides just being a focus of tree-huggers, it is an issue that needs to be addressed since expanding oil production directly correlates with policies on global warming.
A Harvard study released this summer predicts that world oil production will increase to 110.6 billion barrels a day, but that a so-called “tipping point” for global warming considerations will be reached when production passes 88.1 billion barrels a day. The study foresees U.S. production to increase 30 percent over the next eight years.
The president quietly has succeeded in expanding the U.S. energy portfolio in his first four years. It’s a record that could take on any Texan.
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Doug Hissom writes a weekly environmental column for Baltimore Post-Examiner. He has covered local and state politics in Wisconsin for more than 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper. An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.