Inside the Fracking War

In cities and towns across Colorado, “fractivists” concerned about air and water are taking on the booming oil and gas industry.

Greeley residents Bob Winkler and Sara Barwinski stand before oil and natural-gas wells near a high school in this Northern Colorado town.
National Journal
Amy Harder
Nov. 17, 2013, 7 a.m.

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.

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