On Colorado’s Front Range, Fracking Questions Loom Large

Weld County, Colo., is one of the most drilled counties in the country, with almost 20,000 wells. Ninety percent of new wells in the state are fracked.
National Journal
Amy Harder
Nov. 18, 2013, 1:56 p.m.

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.”

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