FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The nation's fight over fracking has an epicenter, and it's in the Denver suburbs where you find both drilling and Democrats.
Driving north on Interstate 25 past Denver, you pass a string of communities in Colorado's Front Range similar to this college town. In each place there's wrangling over the oil and natural-gas production, which is booming with the help of fracking, a drilling technology that's key to extracting unconventional fossil resources but controversial for its environmental risks.
"We are a harbinger of what's going to happen across the country, and that's partly why we've really put our shoulder to the wheel trying to create a very robust regulatory environment," said John Hickenlooper, Colorado's Democratic governor and a former oil geologist, in a phone interview a week after the Nov. 5 election that featured anti-fracking ballot issues in four of the state's cities.
That regulatory regime, which is considered one of the strongest in the country, is not appeasing a growing grassroots environmental movement that wants to stop fossil-fuel production altogether.
Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette, and Broomfield voted on measures in the elections that banned fracking to varying degrees. The initiatives were approved by comfortable margins in all but Broomfield, where a proposal initially failed before a recount last week had it passing. It now faces another recount. Broomfield is the least blue of the four communities and the one that has the most new drilling prospects.
Neighboring Loveland tried but failed to get a similar initiative on its ballot this year. Longmont, which passed a fracking ban last year, is facing lawsuits from Hickenlooper's administration and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Even a small residents' group in Greeley, which is considered the poster child — for better or worse — of how a city coexists with booming oil and gas drilling, is mulling whether to fight for a moratorium there. Greeley has more than 400 wells within its city limits, and it's the county seat of Weld County, which has more than 15,000 wells.
"We have multiple communities all wrestling with this issue at the same time," Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview in his downtown Denver office the day after the election. "That makes it very, very difficult for us as regulators to engage the way we would like to with all of those communities at the same time."
Colorado has traditionally ranked in the top 10 of the country's oil- and gas-producing states, and it has more than doubled its oil production and increased its gas production by 30 percent since 2005. In that same time period, another trend began: Colorado's politics shifted from red in the early 2000s to blue in more recent years. After George W. Bush won the state with 52 percent of the vote in 2004, Barack Obama carried Colorado comfortably in both 2008 and 2012. Obama and his top aides, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, say fracking can be and is being done safely.
"I am an Obama supporter, but I am very sorry that he has promoted fracking as a panacea," said Sara Barwinski, whose house in Greeley is within 700 feet of six wells that will at least double and possibly triple in number early next year.
"There has never before been an issue in my district that has arisen to this prominence before," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who was first elected in 2008 and represents the district that includes the cities that recently voted on anti-fracking measures. He also has property in Weld County directly across from oil and gas wells. "Like so many of my constituents, I got fracked too," said Polis, who is fighting for stronger regulations in Congress — but not a national ban.
Every Colorado government official interviewed for this article expressed at least cautious support for fracking or thinks each community should decide as opposed to statewide or national actions.
"I worry a ballot initiative would be a clumsy and perhaps an ineffective way to find that right balance," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is up for reelection next year along with Hickenlooper, said about the potential for a statewide fracking ban in Colorado, an effort activists are now considering pushing.
The anti-fracking votes in the four Front Range communities initially were wins for activists, but how much further they can push that opposition and whether these cities' initiatives will stand up to legal scrutiny will determine whether their victory lasts. Up until now, activists have primarily succeeded in banning fracking where there is very little if any energy production, including in Vermont and a county in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, the generally public- and media-shy oil and gas industry is stepping up its pro-fracking campaign.
"We found there was a tremendous number of voters that were without information and that the industry has not done a very good job of filling that void where the opposition is," said Ted Brown, a senior vice president at Noble Energy, which is the biggest oil and gas producer in Colorado and has operations around the country and the world. "We're very much focused on how do we develop this resource and not only in the most responsible way, but that we're also building public trust when we do that," said Brown, who oversees all of Noble's operations Colorado and neighboring states.
The industry's Republican supporters echo that sentiment. "I think they [oil and gas industry] have got to be smarter in terms of their public relations," said Rep. Cory Gardner, whose district includes the state's drilling center, Weld County. "They need to use some common sense about what's going to become a very visible part of a fight."