Stay the Frack Out of Our Forearc Redux

Part 2: Following Ken Oplinger to California, and Home Again

Part 2: Following Ken Oplinger to California, and Home Again

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[Note:  This is Part 2 of a series on fracking. Part 1 described the local shale play, seismic zone, and impact on seismic activity of injection of fracking fluids for disposal.]

On April 17, 2013, I posted a message on a listserv of west coast coal terminal opponents with the subject line “Look out Santa Barbara, There's a New Sheriff Comin' to Town.” The sheriff was Ken Oplinger, past president of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and co-founder with Dave Warren, president emeritus of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, of the pro-coal terminal astroturf organization, Northwest Jobs Alliance.

What triggered the email was an  announcement that the Santa Barbara County, California, Chamber of Commerce (SBCCC) had hired Oplinger after a nationwide search because of his "demeanor" and ability to implement their "strategic plan."  For Whatcom County anti-coal terminal activists, Oplinger’s aggressive “Good Jobs Now” messaging as a GPT booster [1] made his demeanor less than salient, so the question was, what was SBCCC’s strategic plan?

It did not seem coincidental that Oplinger was leaving a community by then divided by a false dichotomy of pro- and anti-jobs, and heading to a state with a history of traditional oil and gas drilling, and a county which was home to the Monterey Shale play. According to a 2011 report prepared for the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA),  Santa Barbara County was sitting on top of 15.4 billion barrels of “technically recoverable” shale oil, or a whopping 64% of the total recoverable onshore shale oil in the continental U.S. The problem for a state already facing severe water conflicts because of demands of industrial agriculture – a major economic driver for California – was that the Monterey shale play’s oil was only recoverable if it was technically fracked, an inordinately water-intensive process.

Oplinger arrived in California as the pro- and anti-fracking forces were coming to a standoff over SB 4, a bill pending in the California legislature which purportedly would “regulate” the industry, but which required no more than studying, reporting to, and monitoring by a cash-strapped state agency, while not actually addressing unpreventable impacts such as water use and seismic stimulation triggered by reinjecting used fracking fluids deep underground. With the support of a jobs-desperate Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure passed on September 11, 2013, which only fanned the flames of the anti-fracking initiative movement.

According to Food and Water Watch (like them on Facebook here),420 U.S. communities have passed resolutions related to fracking, including thirteen in California. Now communities are starting to introduce inititives outright banning fracking, including Butte and Santa Barbara Counties in California. Santa Barbara Water Guardians has gathered enough signatures to put such an initiative on the November ballot.

In response to the initiative movement, the petroleum industry did what it does best and commissioned a study that concluded, not surprisingly, that oil and gas produce a whole lot of jobs and tax revenues for California. Oplinger did what he does best and messaged the heck out of fracking’s “virtues”:  energy independence for the state, preventing higher pump prices and, of course, all those lovely jobs and tax revenues for his beloved Santa Barbara and other California counties. All this would be accomplished, according to Oplinger, with no risk to the state because California had, after all, passed SB 4, providing “the strongest safeguards in the nation for oil and gas extraction,” which is probably true.

In addition to initiatives, fracking opponents have introduced a new piece of legislation, SB 1132 – the Oil & Gas Well Stimulation Treatment Prohibition and Study bill – which would impose a moratorium on new fracking wells pending adequate study of impacts, particularly on water. In response to escalating momentum behind SB 1132, on March 13 of this year, Californians for a Safe, Secure Energy Future registered with the California Secretary of State. The group, a consortium made up almost exclusively of business alliances and labor unions, is aggressively targeting SB 1132, messaging  “California families deserve a safe, secure energy future. Not higher gas prices.” 

Then, on Wednesday of this week (June 4), RBN Energy, a leading analyst of the petroleum industry, dropped a bombshell: the EIA will release a report some time this month which concludes only 5% of the Monterrey shale play is economically feasible to extract even with new fracking technology. According to RBN:

“Mostly, it came down to a bad assumption that 'the code' for extracting tight oil from the Monterey Shale would be just as easy to crack as the codes for the Bakken and the Eagle Ford. Another way to put it: The Monterey Shale still holds vast amounts of oil, but the technical wherewithal to extract it economically just is not within reach—at least not yet.”

That conclusion – that it’s not economically feasible to frack the Monterey shale play with current technology – probably applies here in the Bellingham Basin as well. In a phone conversation today, Dave Norman, State Geologist and Oil & Gas Supervisor for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said that the Bellingham basin has more faulting than the Bakken basin, making it less feasible to drill horizontally. That and the fact that we don’t have the same total organic carbon that exists in the Bakken play makes this area an unlikely target for fracking, he said. For now. Norman noted that 20 years ago, no one thought Bakken shale could feasibly be extracted, either. But as of today DNR has no outstanding permits or pending applications for even exploratory drilling anywhere in the state.

For the moment, it does not appear that we need to worry about fracking being added to the onslaught of fossil fuel proposals in Washington. But if we see Ken Oplinger riding back in to town on a black horse ….

[1]  Since Oplinger's departure, GPT has apparently taken over administration of the Northwest Jobs Alliance Facebook page

About Terry Wechsler

Citizen Journalist • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Jun 11, 2014

Thank you for this informative journalism.

Mr. Oplinger was indeed the most intellectually agile and talented public communicator on behalf of Whatcom’s Chamber/BIA/Realtors propaganda and lobbying complex. His sophistry was incandescent. Like Serena Williams’ tennis skill, his sophistry deserves some awe and respect.

While you correctly observe that Oplinger was associated with the GPT project, that has not yet resulted in victory to his side. But…

In his long and skillful advocacy for the luxury-marina, environment-be damned, social-justice-be-damned self-inflicted catastrophe known as the Port development, Oplinger and his comrades were 100% victorious. Not 50%, not 80%. They got all that they sought. They persuaded the COB to cut a special exemption from Bellingham development pattern. Rather than require the developer to pay for incremental infrastructure, the City was persuaded to provide taxpayer coverage of utilities and infrastructure improvements, thereby assuring taxpayer guarantee of private profit. This will result in a bill, payable by the taxpayers of Bellingham, between $100M and $400M over the next thirty years. Mega-yauchts with Caymen registry will at last be able to visit Bellingham, and to be serviced by workers making poverty wages.

Starting with Mayor Asmundson, and culminating in Mayor Linville, all recent Bellingham Mayors have done the Chamber’s and the Realtors’ and the BIA’s bidding in the port. The present mayor is perhaps even more strongly in this camp, but all have been fundamentally alike in this matter. Similarly all recent Councils have acted -if that is the right word -abysmally on the Port. Only Jack Weiss did his job. When the final vote came, the 6-1 victory for the Oplinger side was made without fanfare. One Council member was on painkillers, two were retiring, and the newest member got out of Dodge and was on vacation. So went the most consequential environmental and social-justice decision that Council made in the last decade. The Mayor got her Port subsidy, no strings attached.

The truly influential discussions and venues of persuasion, between the Chamber types and the mayors, were not public meetings and were not open to the public record. The public was given access to various placebo meetings and show-and-tells, so easy to do in this age of PowerPoint, but the real decisions were made “in quiet, private rooms”, to quote then-candidate Mitt Romney during 2012, on his preferred way to govern. You can bet that Ken Oplinger and his minions were part of those meetings, and you can equally bet that ordinary citizens, and their grassroots organizations such as ReSources, were not.

So, Ken leaves Whatcom with an enormous victory on his resume. No wonder the SB chamber hired him!

Best wishes,
Abe Jacobson

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Terry Wechsler

Jun 12, 2014

Damn, Abe, you should be blogging. You’re a heck of a writer, and this should be an article because it’s a great analysis and perspective, and few will find it as a comment to a fracking article.

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Mark Hall

Jun 17, 2014

I second that emotion, painted a sordid picture and named some to shame for allowing the rich to leech off our taxes. Is this what we elect and pay them for?

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Terry Wechsler

Jun 19, 2014

June 16, 2014, NY state passed a 3-year moratorium on fracking. http://ecowatch.com/2014/06/17/new-york-fracking-moratorium-senate/

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