GREELEY, Colo. — I was sitting around a dining-room table with a dozen other people, in a nondescript home in this city that has about 95,000 people and almost 500 oil and natural-gas wells. They were plotting a strategy that simultaneously engages with, and works against, energy companies.
“I just think it’s better if we play our cards a little closer to our chest,” said Therese Gilbert, a middle-school teacher and a steering committee member of Weld Air and Water, a small (just 100 members) citizens’ group concerned about growing energy development in Weld County, one of the most drilled counties in the United States, with more than 15,000 wells.
“We have to retain our power,” Gilbert said with a fever pitch in her voice more appropriate for a battle than a meeting.
I didn’t realize then, but I took my first step into the trenches of the state’s war over fracking that early-November evening. Colorado, which has doubled its oil production and increased by 30 percent its natural-gas production since 2005, is a microcosm of the nation’s energy boom and the benefits and risks that come with it.
The motion on the proverbial table, next to the chili and beer on the actual table, was this: Should Weld Air and Water ask Synergy, a Colorado-based oil and gas company, to send a joint invitation to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper to come to Greeley and see firsthand its oil and gas operations?
“Out in Pennsylvania, they’re working with the industry,” said Bob Winkler, a retired Greeley resident. “I don’t know. Trust but — what was that Reagan said? Verify.”
The members of Weld Air and Water are fundamentally against drilling close to homes, schools, and playgrounds. Oil and natural-gas companies, buoyed by reliably high oil prices and decades-old property laws that allow them to drill next door to these areas, are ramping up production throughout Colorado’s suburban Front Range and trying — so far with limited success — to convince communities that they will drill safely.
Fracking, an extraction technology that residents and some experts worry could contaminate drinking-water supplies, has come to encompass the entire debate of America’s boom in oil and gas production.
“There is no one more than me who hates where they put it,” said Sara Barwinski, whose house is within 700 feet of a current Synergy operation of six wells that the company says it will at least double and at most triple in well numbers early next year.
She recounted the constructive conversations she’s had with Synergy and how it has granted almost all of her requests regarding this project, including using new air-monitoring technology. “Of course you do state-of-the-art technology,” Barwinski said. “But that doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it good. It makes a bad situation less bad.”
A little while later, when the chili was gone and leftover Halloween candy had taken its place, another motion was open: asking the Greeley City Council, a pro-drilling crowd, to place a moratorium on new drilling projects within city limits until tougher regulations were in place. If the council doesn’t grant such a request (which is likely), Weld Air and Water would try to put a fracking moratorium on next year’s ballot similar to the initiatives that would face voters in Greeley’s four neighboring cities the day after this meeting.
“The problem with us going to the ballot is the oil and gas industry has put $300,000 into the ballot initiative in Fort Collins. They’ve got maybe two wells,” said Matt Sura, an environmental lawyer who represents the group for free. “We’re talking 200 wells that would be potentially affected. More than 1,000 wells they’re going to squeeze into the city of Greeley. Any one of those wells cost $5 million to drill.”
Sura paused, and for once no one said anything during a meeting that stretched more than two hours. “How much do you think they might try to spend to defeat us? Take a guess,” Sura coaxed his colleagues. “It’s got to be over a million.”
Stepping outside of the confines of that house in Greeley where compromise was a reluctant reality, I entered the fracking battlefields, where compromise and sometimes even reality were in short supply.
“There is going to be a groundswell of opposition that the industry and the country have never seen before,” said Shane Davis, a self-described “fractivist” whose full-time job is to mobilize people against fracking and fossil fuels more generally. “This is just the beginning,” said Davis, who gets part of his paycheck from the outdoor company Patagonia, which actively opposes fracking. He’s also the regional director for campaigns around anti-fracking films Gasland and Gasland 2, which have galvanized grassroots efforts and enraged the energy industry over what even independent experts say are dubious claims made by the producer, Josh Fox, in the films.
As he was driving his gasoline-powered Volvo, I asked him why he doesn’t drive an electric car if he dislikes the oil industry so much. “In fact, I had one. It broke down,” Davis told me. “But, back to the point, the oil and gas industry has a monopoly.”
It was Election Day and Davis was fitting our two-hour “tour de frack” in between appearances in the four Colorado cities that were voting on anti-fracking measures that day: Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette, and Broomfield. By 9 p.m., the results were clear if not yet final: The first three anti-fracking measures won rather easily, and the measure in the more purple-leaning Broomfield narrowly failed, only to have it overturned a week later in a recount. Another recount is now required.
“The Front Range resistance that we’ve built is going to chime across the United States,” Davis said in the afternoon before the results were in. “We already have Texas calling us asking for help. California is asking us for advice. And we take advice from New York and Pennsylvania. We share information all over the place.”
Davis and other activists in Colorado were coy about their plans postelection, which may include a push for a statewide fracking ban. But one thing is clear: They’ll keep fighting fracking, and the industry will respond, much more than it already has.
I then moved from one side of the war to the other. The day after the election, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association held its annual meeting where CEO Tisha Conoly Schuller gave a warning to the hundreds of assembled oil and gas executives about the outcomes of the anti-fracking measures.
“If this does not put fear into your hearts, it should. It really should,” Schuller said. She called on the executives to engage on a grassroots level that can compete with the fractivists, a common term in Colorado that I had never heard before arriving here.
“What we learned from our engagement is that every single heart and mind is won on the ground with human-to-human contact,” Schuller said. Later that day, in an interview in her 10th floor office in downtown Denver, Schuller was candid that the industry will, of course, spend more money to fight fractivists.
“This is just round one of a long engagement,” she said. “Yes, we’re going to continue to invest in local community initiatives about educating neighbors.”
I realized then that the conversation inside the Greeley home just two days earlier was a rare example of potential compromise and cooperation in a dispute that often has opponents shouting over each other.
“What’s so fascinating to me is the two sides almost never talk to each other,” Hickenlooper, the state’s governor, said in a phone interview the week after the election.
Referring to a town-hall meeting he held in Greeley a month ago, Hickenlooper said he’s going to do exactly what Weld Air and Water was considering doing.
“What we’re going to try to do in the next round is to reach out to more environmental groups and the oil and gas industry and try to have both sides in the same room and let each side hear each other out,” Hickenlooper said.
He wants to end his state’s fracking war with diplomacy. It’s a hopeful goal, but it remains to be seen whether the two sides can drop the heated rhetoric and take up a peaceful dialogue.