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
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Senate Intel Postpones Testimony by Cohen
1 days ago
Senate Rejects Effort to Nix SALT Tax Changes
2 days ago

"Senate Democrats on Thursday failed in their first attempt to save the state and local tax deduction, which helps many residents of California and other high-cost states reduce their federal income tax bills. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 52-47 to reject an amendment that would have prevented the Senate from considering any bill that repeals or limits the deduction as part of a planned tax overhaul."

Lewandowski Meets with Senate Intelligence Committee
2 days ago

"President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared on Capitol Hill for a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter. Lewandowski is the latest senior official in Trump's orbit who has met with the committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign."

Some Members Seek to Wrap Up Russia Investigations by Year’s End
3 days ago

"A growing number of key Republicans are sending this message to the leaders of the congressional committees investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians: Wrap it up soon. In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition."

Trump: Marino Withdrawing Nomination for Drug Czar
4 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.