FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Can fracking be done safely?
Kelly Giddens, a Fort Collins resident who earlier this month led a successful campaign to place a moratorium on fracking within city limits, paused before she answered the question.
"I don't know," she said while awaiting the election results at a bar in Fort Collins, Colorado's fourth-largest city at 150,000 people. "I'm really concerned about well casing so deep underground. I don't know if they can get that right. But I do have faith in the ingenuity of American minds and engineers and their ability to solve problems."
A few feet away and a few minutes later, Sam Schabacker, the Mountain West regional director for Food and Water Watch, a national consumer and environmental group, answered the question this way:
"We believe fracking is fundamentally dangerous and unsafe," said Schabacker, whose organization is among numerous national groups pushing for a nationwide ban through local and state elections. "There is no way to control it."
The local resident doesn't know whether fracking is safe and is afraid of the unknown, and the national environmental organizer is convinced it cannot be safe. That, in a nutshell, explains the two-tiered opposition to fracking, an extraction technique that's been used for decades but in recent years has fueled the U.S. oil and natural-gas boom and has come to encompass all the benefits and risks that come along with it, especially global warming.
Giddens said she pushed for a moratorium on fracking in Fort Collins out of concern for its impacts on the local environment, including air and groundwater.
The state is working on a study, to be completed by mid-2016, of how fracking could impact public health. When asked if she could support fracking if it was done safely, Giddens responded, "That's hard for me to answer right now. I'd like to see what the recommendations are [from the study]: Here are our results and we recommend you do this and that."
Schabacker's group is willing to accept temporary moratoriums so communities can spend time learning about the potential impacts — and so national organizers can drive more opposition to fossil-fuel development outright. Energy companies oppose any type of moratorium, even a temporary one, since that would very likely be a gateway to a permanent ban.
Oil and natural-gas companies, buoyed by reliably high oil prices and decades-old property laws that allow them to drill even next door to homes and schools, are ramping up production throughout Colorado's suburban Front Range and trying — so far with limited success — to convince residents they can drill safely. The state has more than doubled its oil production and increased its gas production by 30 percent since 2005.
Shane Davis, a self-described "fractivist" whose full-time job is to mobilize people against fracking — and oil and gas drilling writ large — focuses mainly on the public-health and environmental concerns. Ultimately, though, he is fighting to end fossil-fuel production altogether.
"Fractivism around hydraulic fracturing is so critical, and it's moving at a really fast pace," Davis said. "We know it contributes to climate change. Climate change was yesterday. We're in a climate crisis now."
There is another big concern, too, beyond the environmental effects of fracking: industry's encroachment into communities. It is essentially an issue of property rights, but it is complicated by layers of local and state laws.
"The biggest concern in my district is that it's coming into people's yards without people's permissions," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who represents the district that includes Fort Collins and three other cities that recently voted to limit fracking.
The answer to the question — Is fracking safe? — is an open one when asked throughout Colorado's Front Range. But among top state officials and leaders of President Obama's administration, the answer appears to be an unequivocal yes.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have all indicated in recent months that fracking can be and is being done safely. But that message is not resonating in places such as Fort Collins, which doesn't have much oil and gas development now but still has many worries.
"I think the dialogue is confused, and it's not well-informed," Jewell said at an event in San Francisco earlier this month, according to Environment & Energy Daily. "It's part of the industry's job to make sure that the public understands what it is, how it's done, and why it's safe."
Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Natural Resources Department, said the industry has a good track record of working with communities, but the volume of opposition now is greater than in the past.
"Where industry has had an opportunity to participate as corporate citizens, inevitably and without exception those communities have come to accept benefits of those activities along with the impacts," King said. "The vast majority of people understand that we all use energy. And it's something that we have to get our arms around, and when it comes to energy, there is no free lunch."