FIRESTONE, Colo. — If you look closely at the fights over energy development in Colorado, you can see the full spectrum of positions evolving among national environmental groups on what role, if any, natural gas should play in the quest to combat global warming.
Before the fracking boom of the last five years, natural gas was widely considered by environmentalists to be a "bridge" fuel that could help the U.S. cut greenhouse gases while it developed more renewable energy, largely because gas produces far fewer carbon emissions than coal or oil.
Now, with burning of natural gas growing at unprecedented levels, the environmental community is becoming fragmented on the issue of how much it should be used.
On one end of the spectrum are grassroots organizers like Shane Davis, a self-described "fractivist" who is opposed to fracking and by extension all fossil-fuel development. He is the regional director in Colorado for Josh Fox, producer of the anti-fracking film Gasland. Davis is part of a relatively small but loud and influential segment of grassroots organizers fighting to stop fracking not just to prevent global warming, but to protect social values.
"This is not an anti-fracking fight anymore. Now it's a civil-rights movement," Davis said on Election Day this year while driving around Weld County — Colorado's fracking epicenter with more than 15,000 wells. "Our civil rights to safety and protection have been taken away from us."
Davis's position is aligned with certain national groups also opposed to all fossil fuels, including Food & Water Watch and the Sierra Club, one of the world's oldest and most influential environmental organizations. After years of supporting natural gas as a bridge fuel to renewable energy and even taking money from the gas industry, the Sierra Club formally changed its position last year in the name of global warming. The group now does not negotiate with or take money from the gas industry.
"As more information came out and fracking exploded across the country, we adjusted our policy," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told National Journal Daily in an interview this week. "It's the fundamental concern we have. We think gas offers a false hope of arresting climate change." The group is considering moving up by 20 years — from 2050 to 2030 — its goal to wean the nation's power sector off coal and natural gas, which right now combined account for almost 70 percent of U.S. electricity.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who represents four Colorado communities that voted earlier this month to ban fracking, said he doesn't think many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are opposed to natural gas outright.
"Those are really the fringe views," Polis said. "There are not many in the environmental community that say all energy will be renewable tomorrow."
The Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch were among the largest national groups supporting the anti-fracking measures in Polis's district.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization known for its influential collaboration with the oil and gas industry on tougher drilling regulations. EDF helped broker an agreement — announced this week by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado — with a trio of oil and gas companies that creates the first-ever state regulation for methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can be released from fracking operations.
"This proposal represents a model for the nation," EDF President Fred Krupp said after this week's announcement. When asked about other groups' insistence not to negotiate for stronger rules, Mark Brownstein, associate vice president for EDF's U.S. energy and climate program, responded: "The question is not whether you like gas or hate gas, it's what you do to protect a community from the environmental risks for however long you're going to use gas."
The gulf between the positions of EDF and groups like the Sierra Club has grown amid the fracking boom.
"It's brought some of the issues to the forefront that have always been present but were more easily avoided in the past," said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, one of the four Front Range cities that voted to ban fracking earlier this month. "What the fracking boom is showing is that arguments that hinge on scarcity are not at least for the foreseeable future going to be the path forward if we're going to transform the energy system."
Brune, the Sierra Club's leader, said, "It is true, we have different positions on natural gas and the degree to which we're focusing on increasing clean energy." So does this cause discord within the environmental community? "Yes," Brune said, opting not to say more.
"I don't think necessarily I want to [elaborate] because I'm more interested in finding ways for environmental groups to support each other at preventing fracking from expanding, while helping communities to protect their air and water where fracking might already be occurring."
Back in Weld County, Davis wasn't as reserved.
"My personal opinion is they [EDF] are a disgrace to the environment," Davis said, accusing the group of a "dereliction of duty."
Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose most recent president, Kevin Knobloch, stepped down to become chief of staff to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, represents a middle part of the spectrum. The group is going to help inform communities along Colorado's Front Range with "toolkits" that include basic facts about the pros and cons of oil and gas drilling.
"If it's going to be done, communities should have access to information about the risks and the benefits about it to help inform their decisions," said Gretchen Goldman, an analyst at the group's Center for Science and Democracy. UCS has already helped some communities in California, and Colorado is next on its list. Misinformation about fracking "comes from all sides," Goldman said. "It really demonstrates what a high-stakes debate this is."