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The Oil Patch Environmentalist

My passion for protecting the environment dates back to the 1850s – a farm from the 1850s, that is. I gained an early respect for water and land conservation, learning from my grandfather as he tended to our 4th generation family farm just outside of Neosho in Southwestern Missouri. Our farm is spring fed, so you have to be able to manage your water usage very well. I had the opportunity to participate in all aspects of running a farm, from irrigation to plowing the fields. On top of managing the farm, my grandfather was head of Neosho’s water department and we spent a lot of time hiking and fishing in nature. Water, land and the outdoors were at the center of everything he loved, and through his example it became clear to me at a very young age that managing your impact on the environment was of the utmost importance.

I grew up in Tulsa, just a few hours southwest of the family farm. Once known as the oil capital of the world, Tulsa has a long and proud history of oil production. By some estimates, a quarter of all jobs in Oklahoma are tied to the energy sector. As early as high school, I was involved in environmental advocacy, even in the oil patch. That may sound contradictory – environmental advocacy in the oil capital – but I figured out along the way that the industry and environmental stewardship weren’t mutually exclusive. My family taught me a practical and pragmatic approach to protecting the environment, and reiterated that the lessons of conservation learned on my family’s farm could have relevance to the oil and gas industry that surrounded me.

Being from Oklahoma, there weren’t many career options outside of working in the oil and natural gas industry. I spent nearly ten years working in the industry, starting in the environmental department of a small company and working my way up to the executive team. Read More »

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Lessons From A Toxic Waste Dump

Texas is home to half the oil and gas exploration and production in the United States. Looking out west is the Permian Basin. To the north is the Barnett. Out east is the Haynesville and due south is the Eagle Ford. Oil and gas is a vibrant industry in Texas. Historically it’s been the lifeblood of the state’s economy.  But, as with any industrial development, it comes with its own set of serious risks to the environment. Impacts on our land, air, water and climate that if not managed correctly can have lasting consequences.

As an engineer working on water quality issues and related environmental issues for over 30 years, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of unregulated industrial activity. In 1980, the federal government passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as Superfund. Superfund legislation gave the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to compel the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites in our country, suing those responsible, and even establishing a trust fund to address toxic sites with no known responsible party. In Texas, these sites were the result of decades of industrial development caused by, for example, old lead production plants dating back to the early 1900s, World War II era defense manufacturing and the rise of the petrochemical industry.
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Energy Issues Aren’t Black And White, And Neither Is EDF’s Approach

I’ve seen many energy issues expand and contract in the years I’ve been with EDF since 1988.  Our organization has celebrated and participated in many victories regarding climate change, including landmark legislation that put limits for the first time on California’s greenhouse gas emissions, the elimination of eight out of 11 new coal plants in Texas as part of the utility TXU’s buyout and federal standards for controlling air pollution from unconventional gas activities.  At the same time, we’ve seen clean energy sources both praised and attacked.

No issue, however, has been as thorny as natural gas.  We used to think if we just switched from coal or oil to natural gas, we could be certain that the climate change scenario would improve dramatically.  But with lingering uncertainty around just how much methane, a very potent greenhouse, is being emitted and is leaking out across the natural gas system, we are still weighing the amount of climate benefit of its use.

When you don’t know something that you want to know, you turn to experts who either have the knowledge or can acquire the knowledge by asking the right questions.  So, as head of EDF’s US Climate and Energy Program, I’ve assembled a team whose judgment I trust to find answers to the question that defines our gas work: How can we minimize the risks associated with operations and maximize the inherent climate benefit of natural gas?

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