Fracking Foes Fight One Battle at a Time in Colorado

Colorado-based Synergy is expanding this oil and gas operation, a few hundred feet from a high school in Greeley, from six to at least 12 wells.  
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Nov. 17, 2013, 7 a.m.

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.”

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