Monday, August 3, 2009

A Discussion with Congressman Fleming on the Haynesville Shale

Congressman Fleming in the Cloak Room on the Hill

My Interview with Congressman Fleming

by Keith Mauck

I arrived at Congressman John Fleming’s office, which is located in the Longworth Building, around 3:30 and took a seat. Soon thereafter, Fleming came out of a meeting. Of course, as the way things go at Congressional offices, Fleming had to run down to the floor to cast a vote. So after a brief intro and a handshake, he was gone as quickly as he appeared. So I sat there a little longer. Amy Jones, the Communications Director who scheduled the interview, came out and introduced herself. Nice gal.

A map of a proposed Haynesville Shale boundary hung prominently on the wall above a staffer. I recognized the map from a presentation Fleming had made on the floor. I decided I had to get a picture of it, so you all have something else to debate. Here's the map.

Fleming did come back. I was ushered into his office and we took seats across from each other. A couple of staffers filed in and took seats to my left; Matt Ross, a Legislative Correspondent on Energy Issues and former landman, and Jamie Hennigan, the Congressman’s Energy Policy Advisor.

During the interview, it became obvious to me that Rep. Fleming has taken the time to understand the shale issue. Some of you may remember that candidate Dr. John Fleming took part in an online chat on this site during the campaign. It was obvious then that he knew little about the industry, but probably for good reason; one, he was busy with a medical practice and two, he lives in Minden, LA which is beyond the Haynesville Shale zone. However today, it is clear that Rep. Fleming has embraced this issue and has opted to run with it. For that, the 4th District is sure to benefit.

GHS: So how has DC been treating you since your arrival? What’s been the biggest adjustment for you?

Fleming: We’ve adapted to urban living here on the Hill. My wife is up here with me because our kids are grown. I don’t have to go home to see my wife – thank goodness, but I do go home every 2 weeks or so and we do stay busy in the district with quite a few events, such as a recent tour of a drilling rig. So yeah, I try to get to the district often and touch every part of the 4th district at every level.

GHS: What do you miss about everyday living in Minden, LA?

Fleming: I do miss the freedom that allows one to just hop in the car and go. We live on Capitol Hill, so we walk to most places. We do have a car here, but often it’s just not practical to use it.

GHS: Do you miss the medical practice?

Fleming: I certainly have enjoyed my practice, but I didn’t leave practice to go into a boring field. I find this to be very challenging. Every day here is very interesting and very exciting.

GHS: What is your legislative philosophy and how did you develop it?

Fleming: My background is in business, medicine, and the military so these experiences have shaped my philosophy. My mission, as I see it, is to move America back to the values of our Founders; including freedom of the individual, capitalism and the right to bear arms. The piling of debt by this federal government through fiscal irresponsibility and government over reaching via central planning is setting us up for failure. Though I was concerned before, once I got to DC, I found it to be much worse (i.e. the attack on shale drilling) than I thought. Our decline is occurring more rapidly than I had anticipated.

GHS: As John Fleming the candidate, you participated in a live online chat on GHS. Since then I imagine there has been quite a bit of learning taking place on natural gas and shale. What’s the biggest complexity regarding the Haynesville shale in your opinion?

Fleming: I find the technology of shale drilling ingenious. It’s not overly complex. Sometimes simple things are a thing of beauty and this is the case with the production of natural gas from shale. As you well know, at one point, we didn’t even know that gas was packed into the shale or if we knew it, we didn’t know how to get to it. I think it’s a great process. Natural gas has ½ the carbon footprint as coal and there isn’t a renewable form of energy that can come close to competing with its low cost. We (the U.S.) are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.

Now, I think the creation of infrastructure to take advantage of this natural gas is the next hurdle we have to clear. We need to get to the place where you can fill up your car with natural gas as we do now with gasoline. We’re the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, so why should we be buying oil from them when we have an abundance of natural gas.

GHS: So what do you see out there in the 4th District? Any observations from your point of view on the development of the play?

Fleming: People who call in to the office are primarily concerned with Federal Energy process and recognize the potential of natural gas in helping wean the U.S. off of foreign oil. The office stays in constant contact with the LA Office of Conversation.

GHS: What issues and questions are raised by your constituents regarding the Haynesville Shale?

Fleming: I hear concerns regarding infrastructure maintenance. People want to make sure our parish roads and highways are well maintained and that the tax payer isn’t left holding a large bill at the conclusion of production. Production companies have told me that they want to do their part in maintaining the infrastructure of local communities; making sure that the roads are left in good condition after production slows. One way or another, we have to work as a community. Residents want the exploration companies to be there and the E&Ps want to be there, so it’s a win-win. But still, we don’t want these companies to leave in 20 years and leave destroyed infrastructure without the tax base needed to repair the roads.

GHS: What about groundwater contamination? In your mind, are there any legitimate concerns regarding how hydraulic fracturing is being conducted?

Fleming: My only concern is that it may get hyper-regulated.

Hydro Fracking has a target on its back. Representatives on the Natural Resources Committee, one of the committees I sit on, are attempting to place hydro fracking under EPA oversight. I think the process of hydro fracking is sound because we’ve been unable to find any examples of ground water contamination resulting from fracking. Additionally, states are already regulating this process so why place it under more regulation? Also disconcerting is the possibility that involving the EPA could tack on an extra 18 months to the permitting process. This seems like an attempt to: 1) Increase revenues into the federal budget for social engineering and central planning and 2) Push a green agenda that is unable to compete on the open marketplace.

GHS: Do you work with Louisiana’s Department of Conservation on any of these Haynesville Shale issues? Is there any coordination with state departments?

Fleming: With the emergence of legislation to regulate the process of hydraulic fracturing, we’ve been in close communication with staff and the District Engineer of LA Department of Conservation to discuss:
- The effectiveness and efficiency of State regulation.
- Possible adverse effects of increased federal regulation.
- Who plays a roll in the regulation of this process at the State level.
- We inquire about the number of cases of water contamination (the department has assured us that there have been no confirmed examples)

GHS: You took a tour of a Chesapeake Energy drilling rig recently; what rig was it and what did you come away with from that tour?

Fleming: We toured the NOMAC 48, which is drilling the Indigo Materials 31H-1 Well in the southwestern part of Caddo Parish. The well location was off the Woolworth Road. I had never been to a rig before, but I was impressed with the improved technology being implemented in the drilling process. The control panel looks like the cockpit of an aircraft with all these computer screens displaying metrics. There’s a guy with a joy stick directing the drilling. There is very little guess work in the process. Every action is backed with scientific/seismic data.

GHS: We seem to hear mixed messages coming out of DC. We hear that natural gas is “abundant and ours,” but yet when legislation is passed, natural gas is conspicuously missing from the mix. Congress is now considering federal oversight on hydraulic fracturing. A while back, President Obama proposed removing standing tax exemptions for independent oil & gas producers and we also see Salazar, Secretary of the Department of Interior going back and modifying previous leases on federal land.

What’s up? Do policy makers inside the beltway view natural gas as a viable alternative to oil or not? If so, they sure do have a funny way of showing it.

Fleming: I want to warn people that DC is not thinking logically on these energy issues. Basically, you’ve got liberal politicians, unions and environmentalists and the last thing they want is for the U.S. to become energy independent. Though the rhetoric is about lowering cost and becoming energy independent, the actions of many here in DC push for the exact opposite. Many have the goal of lowering this nation’s energy use. The only way to accomplish this is to raise the cost of energy which will suppress energy consumption, but this also suppresses our manufacturing capabilities (i.e. jobs). As a result, these people aren’t interested in technologies that are going to make this nation more independent or lower the cost of energy. This runs counter to their stated goals. I experienced this first hand during a hearing in which a “green energy” academic admitted that the goal was to keep energy prices elevated in order to make solar and wind competitive with natural gas and oil based energy.

GHS: Do you anticipate that natural gas will be a centerpiece to our energy policy? Will T. Boone’s PR push for CNG succeed?

Fleming: I think it should. It’s a wonderful transition fuel that could assist us in moving over to the next major energy source and who knows what that will be. I think T. Boone is right CNG is a great transition fuel - perhaps a 100 year transition fuel. But, there are a lot of forces at work in here in DC that want us to go back into the “stone age.” They are not interested in using any fossil fuels at all. They don’t want us using nuclear which has zero carbon footprint. So we do have many of the technological advances we need in place – even technology removing the Co2 from natural gas. We potentially have everything we need to have our cake and eat it too - we have the capability of being energy independent, having low energy costs and fueling this nation’s vast manufacturing engine – but like I say, we have many here in DC who don’t want to see any fossil fuel source succeed.

GHS: HR 1835 (modifying alternative fuel credits to include CNG and LNG) includes credits for producing vehicles fueled by CNG or LNG or vehicles converted to operate on CNG, increases natural gas vehicle requirements for the federal fleet and provides grants for natural gas vehicles research and development. Are you supportive?

Fleming: It remains to be seen whether this bill will gain any traction, but yeah, I am a co-sponsor of this legislation. Boren is one of the few Democrat exceptions on the Hill – he gets it. I am extremely supportive of HR 1835.

Once again that pesky voting buzzer began piping up, but the Congressman who had already been generous with his time, invited me to tag along down to the cloak room where he could answer more questions in between floor votes. So of course, I took him up on it. We hiked from the Longworth Building over to the Cloak Room via the house basement tunnel. Matt Ross, the LC tagged along too. We chatted while walking.

GHS: In typical beltway fashion the Waxman-Markey climate bill is over 1,000 pages. Have you gotten a handle on what this bill means for the average American?

Fleming: Well, this is just an attempt to collect more tax revenues. Even Green Peace has stated that this is nothing more than a political move and that it’s going to do nothing for the environment and climate change. They know that, we know that. It’s nothing more than a Trojan horse for more taxation. If this is implemented, we’ll feel this when we pay elevated utility bills or when we see jobs go good bye. Manufacturers here in the U.S. can’t compete with overseas competitors who abide by these same policies. We are in a world-wide economy now and we are already losing manufacturing jobs overseas; cap n trade, or cap n tax will only exacerbate these losses. I look to Spain as the potential disaster cap n trade could be – 18% unemployment rate and skyrocketing utility bills.

GHS: How will the cap n trade program be administered and how will these allowances be auctioned off?

Fleming: My understanding is that this becomes a function of Wall Street and creates a whole new industry – similar to the derivatives industry. The level of sophistication involved makes Wall Street the default suitor for such a feat and essentially a government contractor. The idea on its face is folly. However if we accept, for the sake of argument, this erroneous idea, why should we put the authors of the mortgage meltdown in charge of auctioning off these carbon allowances? Oddly enough, Italy is one of few countries also moving towards a cap n trade system. According to a recent hearing witness, the mafia sees these carbon-allowance transactions as a potential source of large revenue. Bottom line, somebody is going to make money off this thing and it’s not going to be the consumer.

GHS: In your mind, how do we move off of foreign oil into a new energy era? How would you lay out a plan to achieve this?

Fleming: I have signed on to several plans. Essentially, I believe we should open up ANWAR, permanently open up off-shore drilling, build 100 new nuclear plants, push forward on natural gas and certainly continue research on renewable energy sources. Personally, I am not for subsidies for solar or wind until the technologies have been proven. At this point wind and solar energy, on a mass level, are not cost effective. For example, when the wind isn’t blowing, we still have the infrastructure sitting around not being used, so further infrastructure is needed to kick in energy sources when the wind isn’t blowing. So, nobody is using wind and solar to any large degree except in nations that subsidize it. I never quite understood why T. Boone Pickens pushed wind energy so hard. The technology just isn’t where it needs to be yet. Perhaps, one needs to talk about renewables in order to get a seat at the table?

GHS: Lastly, are you ready to declare your intent to seek reelection in 2010?

Fleming: (chuckle) Well, this probably isn’t the venue to do that, but let’s just say that I have no interest in resigning.