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Jury still out on the full effects of fracking

Last week, there was an auction at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management office in Reno of public land parcels in Nevada for oil and gas exploration, an auction that raised concerns among opponents of fracking.

Of the dozens of parcels offered, only one bid was offered on only one parcel. There were competing views of what went wrong — or right, if you believe leaving the land undisturbed is positive. The bureau, which is accused of being too cozy with the oil and gas industry, blamed the sage grouse, known in the Great Basin as the sage hen.

“Sage grouse is a huge issue here,” bureau spokeswoman Patricia LaFramboise said. “We’ve removed a lot of the parcels for sale until the Fish and Wildlife Service makes its decision (on designating sage hen for legal protections). The areas of interest have some serious environmental impacts.”

That line went on top of an Associated Press story that ran from coast to coast under the headline “Sage grouse scares off BLM oil, gas bidders in Nevada.”

But Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity asked how sage hen could be the issue when parcels where that was an issue were taken off the auction list.

He argued that BLM is in the business of promoting fracking and so it was spinning the story its way. He argued that the decline in petroleum prices has reduced the “need” for fracking, and that was the reason for what happened at the auction, not the sage hen issue.

“I just sat in on the auction,” he told me. “I just came from BLM Nevada state headquarters and I really think that we can kind of claim a victory because out of nearly a hundred parcels of public land that were up for auction being on today’s (list) — they only sold one. They sold it for two dollars an acre. That they only sold one … really underscores our concern that there doesn’t even seem to be a lot of interest from the oil and gas industry on fracking in Nevada.”

He called the bureau a “pusher” of fracking, which is high-pressure injection of a water/chemical/sand (or gravel) mix into the ground to fracture rock containing oil or gas.

“The promoter and pusher of this really is the Department of the Interior,” Patterson said. “And we find it to be very problematic that the Department of the Interior is trying to push these leases when there doesn’t even seem to be significant demand from industry. That was very clear today. So that really makes us wonder why they are offering these leases at all.”

In contrast to the AP story, a Los Angeles Times story did not assign a cause to the auction’s outcome.

It would be helpful to the industry in a public relations sense if the focus can be thrown on the sage hen instead of on fracking. Fracking is a relatively new technology, dating to the late 1940s. Much needs to be learned about it, and it’s not clear why the feds are in such a hurry to promote it.

The dispute is reminiscent of hydraulic mining, a technique employed in the West in the 1800s. It used high-pressure water jets to blast soil away into sluices where gold was exposed. This process, used in places such as Nevada City, Calif., and Osceola, Nev., did enormous environmental damage, including erosion of the watershed. The initial philosophy was that its advocates had no responsibility to prove its value, that critics of hydrology had to prove its faults.

By the same token, critics of fracking are expected to prove it unsafe instead of the industry proving it safe. Nevadans have heard this before. Federal rent­-a-scientists such as Alvin Graves, Willard Libby and Jack Clark told us in the 1950s that fallout was safe, and expected critics to prove otherwise. How many died because the feds didn’t have to prove fallout safe first?

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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