11/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Water Still Matters

According to a poll released this week by the Montana-based Western Organization of Research Councils, voters in the Colorado's Third Congressional District support regulation of hydrofracturing, a process used in oil and gas exploration, by a margin of about three-to-one.

First, a little background. Hydrofracturing involves the pumping of mud, sand, and/or chemicals under pressure into a rock stratum for the purpose of breaking it apart. Breaking the rock frees up oil and/or gas that might otherwise be unobtainable because the unfractured rock is too impermeable to give up its gas or oil. The process has been contentious, in part because oilfield service companies regard the formulas of their fracturing fluids as trade secrets. No one but the oilfield service companies has any idea of what's being pumped into the ground.

There are two bills currently before Congress, HR-2766 in the House and S-1215 in the Senate, which propose to regulate hydrofracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Each of the virtually identical bills is called the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act. The oil and gas industry is currently exempt from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act -- the only industry to enjoy such an exemption. The FRAC Act would remove the exemption. Oil and gas is vehemently opposed to the legislation, often stating that there has been no evidence of hydrofracturing chemicals polluting anyone's drinking water.

Well of course there's no evidence. If you don't know what's in fracking fluid, how can you test for it?

The oil and gas lobby's position got very shaky a few weeks ago when the EPA released the results of a study in tiny west-central Wyoming town of Pavillion, which, like many rural Wyoming communities, is heavily dependent on oil and gas drilling. It seems there are many chemicals in the local well water that shouldn't be there, least of all in a remote little town like Pavillion, Wyoming.

The industry's argument is further complicated by anecdotal evidence of people actually getting sick from fracking-fluid spills.

That's enough background. Let's get to the poll.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel article about the poll devoted more than a little space to comments from the oil and gas lobby. The Sentinel didn't post a link to the poll on its website, but I'll post one here.

The most egregious comment in the article was a statement by Nate Strauch of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, who dismissed the poll as a "push poll." Strauch said,

A push-poll conducted nearly two months ago by a fringe, Boulder-based firm that telephoned 500 of the district's 360,000 registered voters can hardly be called an accurate representation of attitudes toward the safe and essential process of hydraulic fracturing.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry, as he often does, drew a false equivalence between the loss of oil-and-gas jobs and environmental legislation. Penry said,

I'll bet 95 percent of voters also wish unemployment wasn't at a 65-year high.

The decline in oil and gas jobs in Western Colorado, however, is linked solely to the decline in price of natural gas.

I downloaded the poll from the sponsor's web site and took a hard look at it. It's anything but a "push poll." The questions were factual and neutral, and were asked in varying order so as not to bias the result by the order of the questions. Don't take my word for it, read the poll questions at the link.

No serious polling house does push polls. Harstad Strategic Research, the Boulder-based company that conducted the poll, is a serious polling house.

I did some analysis of the poll, but it's lengthy and there's not enough space here to go into detail. I'll refer you to the article on the Junction Daily Blog for my full analysis.

Apparently, to some members of the oil and gas industry, a "push poll" is anything conducted by a company from Boulder, anything that was paid for by an environmental group, or, most important, anything that tells you something you don't want to hear. But to me, whether a survey is a "push poll" depends only on the questions that were asked and the way in which they were asked. This poll asked the right questions in the right way.

It doesn't matter who conducted this poll, where their offices are, or who paid for it. I used to do surveys for a living, so I know a little about polling methodology. This poll was well done and, in my opinion, accurate.

The bottom line is that Western Colorado still values water above all else. That should come as a surprise to no one. The people of rural Colorado are saying, as they have said for more than a century, "Don't mess with our water."