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Posted: July 01, 2014

Energy: Divided over drilling

Messages collide as fracking debate comes to voters

Allen Best

Colorado’s record for oil production was set in 1956, and for decades it appeared untouchable. Last year, owing to the confluence of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, much of it in the Wattenberg field north of Denver, the record finally tumbled. Natural gas production was the fourth highest ever.

It’s all good, said many in Colorado, citing the bonanza of jobs and tax revenues. But to Protect Our Loveland and other citizen groups from Broomfield to Fort Collins, drilling rigs dotting the night landscape like scattered Christmas trees represent threats, not energy security. The groups have been laying down lines in the tight sands and shales of the Niobrara and other formations.

“We would like to know how our health and property values will be affected,” says Sharon Carlisle, president of Protect our Loveland. Industry groups and state regulators have provided information, but she is skeptical. “For them, their bottom line is their point of view.”

SWAYING STAKEHOLDERS

The fracking moratorium in Loveland, scheduled for a June 24 vote, was just one of many prospective ballot measures in Colorado headed to the November ballot. After efforts to forge compromise failed, The Denver Post by mid-May had identified more than a dozen possible energy-related measures for the November ballot. Pro-drilling groups may sponsor several, to maintain the status quo. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder, has several possible measures. Amendment 75, proposed by the Colorado Community Rights Network, would alter the state constitution to substantially tilt power to govern drilling and other industrial activities to local jurisdictions.

Cliff Willmeng, a registered nurse from Lafayette who is on the board of directors of Community Rights Network, says state government does not tell local communities whether they must accept liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries or pawn shops. But it reserves that right in cases of drilling, mining and other industrial activities. “We’re saying that fracking is a violation of our fundamental rights,” he says.

Many millions of dollars are expected to yield seemingly nonstop TV advertisements. A pro-drilling political issue committee, for example, had raised $2.1 million from January through April. Also girding for a fight was a bipartisan pro-drilling group backed by former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and Greeley Mayor Tom Norton. There was also speculation that the American Petroleum Institute would put $20 million into the fight. In turn, pro-drilling groups suggested that opponents would get their fingers into the deep pockets of billionaire Tom Steyer, who has funded opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, or even Yoko Ono. For that matter, Polis himself has ample treasure in his trousers. Willmeng, though, reports just $35,000 in donations to his group. “We keep getting promised piles of money, but they always fail to show up,” he says.

Colorado currently has diffused authority over drilling. In general, state law delegates oversight of drilling operations to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission but reserves land-use authority to local governments. The Supreme Court has affirmed that principle in two key cases, one originating in Durango and the other in Greeley, from the early 1990s. That still leaves a broad gray area. The most high-profile challenge comes from Longmont, where the city council in 2012 more than doubled what were then set-back requirements imposed by the state and banned drilling in residential and other zones. The state has sued, arguing that Longmont infringes on state authority. Later, in a municipal referendum, 60 percent of voters banned fracking altogether. The state has joined a lawsuit filed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to overturn that ban.

Last year, voters in Lafayette banned fracking, while those in Fort Collins, Lafayette, Broomfield and Boulder imposed moratoria. Boulder County commissioners also imposed a moratorium on drilling. A citizen-initiated fracking ban was adopted by Longmont voters in 2012.

Split estates pose a prickly issue. Mineral rights and surface land, both private property, are often independently owned. Few people inquire about potential drilling on their property or that of neighbors when buying homes. “What upsets the apple cart more than anything else is surprise,” said Matt Lepore, director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a May meeting in Greeley.

Why the controversy now? “Fear-mongering,” is the diagnosis of B.J. Nikkel, a former Republican legislator from Loveland who directs drilling-friendly Loveland Energy Action Project. She accuses out-of-state groups of stirring the pot to “get them to be overly concerned about things I don’t think they need to be overly concerned about.”

She sees a theme in anti-drilling initiatives. “They were pretty desperate to have wins, and so they targeted these cities in Colorado so that they could tout them as wins,” she says, drawing attention to Boulder and Fort Collins. “We can’t have this patchwork of regulations in cities across the state that are attempting to regulate business,” she adds. “It just doesn’t make sense to do it that way.”

But in “The Boom,” Russell Gold’s analysis of America’s drilling revolution, he notes that 15 million Americans now live within a mile of a drilling rig. Even in the affluent and presumably Republican suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth there’s been pushback.

In northern Colorado, nearly all of the drilling so far has occurred east of Interstate 25. Weld County has 22,000 of the state’s 52,000-plus active wells, sometimes in close proximity to homes. In early May, a rig next to the track and football stadium for Northridge High School lit the night sky. Mineral Resources planned 16 other well pads, including one location within 500 feet of an elementary school. Minerals are already being extracted from underneath the University of Northern Colorado campus via horizontal shafts. Greeley, if more welcoming to drilling than Boulder, also has concerns.

In Loveland, drilling is more distant. So far, the only avowed interest is located on the edge of the expanding municipality of 71,000 people, a mile east of I-25 in the Centerra complex. Centerra now consists primarily of a shopping complex, but plans call for a substantial residential component.

Rebuffed by the city council when asking for a moratorium, Protect our Loveland gathered signatures to refer the proposal to a public vote. Carlisle said her group secured the signatures in half the expected time. “I’m not asking them to stop,” she says of drilling companies. “I’m just asking for them to be more responsible.”

Carlisle traces her distrust to her childhood in Pennsylvania. Her father, a World War II veteran, had come home and gotten a job in Apollo, at a nuclear fuels factory. It was sold as a bundle of virtues: helping the economy, delivering jobs and making America more secure. “Sound familiar?” she asks. He died at age 54 of cancer, and she insinuates a link to what is now a Superfund site. Adults can make choices, she says, but not so children. Just as regulators a half-century ago too casually considered the health effects of radioactive materials, she fears the long-term effects of drilling today. “Children don’t get to choose where they live,” she says.

PLAYING THE FIELD

Colorado has beefed up environmental regulations since 1985, but especially since 2008.  Drillers howled with protest of the first set of regulations, sparked by concerns in the Rifle area. Even then, U.S. Senator Tim Wirth and other climate-change warriors were urging drillers to welcome more regulation as the quid pro quo for social license to drill.

More and more layers of regulation have been added to protect air and water and provide buffers from homes and businesses. Legislators also beefed up enforcement, adding 11 new inspectors to the previous staff of 13. In February, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission further targeted fugitive emissions from pipelines and tanks of volatile organic compounds associated with the formation of the lung-damaging ground-level ozone that continues to plague the northern Front Range.

But for all the tens of thousands of wells drilled in Colorado since 1881, much remains unknown. That fact was highlighted in early May when a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that new monitoring techniques had revealed that oil and gas operations in the northern Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane as had been predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxin.

Speaking in Boulder last year, Bernard Goldstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, urged a cautious, slower embrace of fracking and other drilling techniques. Public health studies, he explained, need a broad database. It can take decades for trends to become evident. Also, while hydraulic fracturing has been around since 1947, today’s fracks are far more powerful and chemically complex.

That same point is made by John Adgate, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health. In a paper he co-wrote with Goldstein, Adgate points to a paucity of peer-reviewed public health research. “Given the lack of systematic tracking of exposure and health effects in communities, there are little data to inform risk mitigation and risk management activities.” There are, the paper adds, many unknowns.

In an interview, Adgate further explained that among the many public-policy questions is, “How do you appropriately talk about the various tradeoffs?” such as the impacts to air and water compared to the jobs generated.

For almost two years, Boulder-based historian Patty Limerick has invited a broad spectrum of speakers in the FrackingSENSE series. In April, for example, former La Plata County commissioner Josh Joswick explained that he had found drilling companies to be bullies. “And I don’t like bullies.” The week before, Halliburton employee Norman Warpinski had explained his passion for fracking and drilling in this way: “It’s the reason why our lifestyles are the way they are; it’s because of cheap energy.”

Whether cheap energy today has hidden, long-term costs is ultimately what Colorado voters in November must decide.

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