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Frackers and farmers



Story and Photography By Lee Buchsbaum

As the tents go up at Front Range farmers’ markets each spring, it’s a sure sign of the immense and healthy bounty to follow. Beginning with bags of locally produced, organic, leafy greens, followed by bulbous tomatoes and an assortment of zucchinis, peppers and squash, the farmer’s market season along the Front Range culminates each fall with truckloads of peaches and fresh apples driven in from Western Slope fruit baskets like the North Fork of the Gunnison Valley region surrounding Paonia.

The popular outdoor retailers that dot the Front Range comprise the bread and butter for a budding subset of Colorado’s agricultural producers. Increasingly, adjacent to the farmers’ booths you’ll find Western slope-vinted wine, Front Range produced high-quality and small-batch beef, eggs, poultry and other meats and cheeses.

“The image of our farm is important because we direct market to a consumer who is concerned with who and how produce is grown, the purity of it and the story behind it,” said Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss and the spokesman for the (North Fork) Valley Organic Growers Association. “Many of our buyers want to know us, how we grow our food and how we operate. We charge a little more for our product, in large part because the economies of scale don’t work for smaller producers.”

But even though agriculture and oil and gas production have coexisted since the state’s first oil wells sprung up in Boulder County more than a century ago, today organic producers and activists are worried about impacts on water and air quality. They are increasingly getting involved in efforts to slow the rate of oil and gas drilling expansion – fueling tensions between two industries central to Colorado’s health and economy.

“What concerns many of us about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and unconventional oil and natural gas development is the potential for air and water pollution and the general industrialization of the lands surrounding our region,” Waltermire said.

The mating of horizontal and deep directional drilling with conventional oil production has helped unlock untold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas throughout the nation, accelerating energy production, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and propelling the nation to energy independence. Overall, gas production has been a boon to many of the state’s farmers who own mineral rights. This gives their operations another source of income and helps tremendously when agriculture endures rough patches, such as low commodity prices and droughts. Besides bolstering local economies, royalties “can help make up for that loss of crop production or provide enough money for a rancher to buy hay for his cattle so he does not have to sell off his herd that he and his family spent a lifetime building,” said Nick Colglazier, director of public policy, state affairs, for the Colorado Farm Bureau.

But earlier this year, following an uproar from local citizens, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that oversees oil and gas development from Federal lands, decided to withdraw more than 10,000 acres from possible oil and gas development in the North Fork and has postponed further leases for an indefinite period. In June the Boulder County Commissioners – pressured by local citizens and citing new data from recent findings and ongoing studies on the health impacts of oil and natural gas production – determined to extend the county’s moratorium on new development through 2015. Other Front Range communities like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are wrestling with fracking as development begins knocking on their respective doors.

However, on the Eastern plains in Weld County – by some estimates the fifth-most productive agricultural county in the nation – fracking persists unabated. With more than 20,000 producing wells, Weld is also the No. 1 oil and natural gas producing county in the country. While the extraction process supports thousands of jobs and contributes billions to the overall economy, Weld is also the heart of Colorado’s beef and dairy industry. Though fracking’s impact on the rural landscape is obvious throughout the richly producing Wattenberg oil and gas field, objections to drilling are few and the industry enjoys a strong relationship with most ranchers and producers there.

Air and Water Quality Concerns

Mark Guttridge, owner of Ollin Farms in Longmont, wastes no time sharing his take on the situation. “Fracking is the number one threat to organic and safe farming practices in Boulder County and throughout the state,” he said.

Born and raised on land his grandmother farmed, Guttridge established Ollin after working as an environmental engineer and earning a master’s degree in water resource engineering. He also completed contract work for the Environmental Protection Agency, among other clients. Today his 8-acre farm feeds hundreds of local families and its produce is sold at several regional farmers markets.

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Fearing a decline in water availability because of decreased snowpack, drought and climate change, Guttridge is concerned that oil and gas development removes a sizeable amount of water from the hydrological cycle.

“Each well requires between 2 and 8 million gallons of water in order to be fracked,” he said. “Once you take those millions of gallons and inject them into the earth, on average only 50 percent comes back, and much of that water is highly contaminated and cannot be cleaned. Less than 20 percent of the total amount of water that goes down each hole can be returned into the natural hydrological cycle. Instead, most of what does come back has to be permanently stored or is injected into even deeper underground disposal wells.”

Yet far and away, agriculture is the largest user of water in the state, roughly 85 percent of the state’s water used is for that purpose. Vital to the health of any farm is the availability of enough clean, affordable water for raising crops and livestock. The majority of Colorado’s farmers rely on ample supplies of clean ditch water from snowmelt running off the mountains. Many also buy from municipal water sources, and some farmers and ranchers have their own wells that access underground aquifers.

Warning that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), said, “It’s absurd to worry that there won’t be enough water for everyone.” An analysis of water use for oil and gas conducted by the Office of State Engineering and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources found that, “All the water used in oil and natural gas development annually, and projected into the future makes up only one-tenth of 1 percent of all of Colorado’s water.” To acquire water, “Our industry has to lease or get water rights in the same way others have to.” In fact, to ensure water’s pecking order, there’s a state statute giving a priority to agricultural and residential use before all industrial uses, Schuller said.  

Another popular myth is that though the industry is exempt from some specific stipulations within the Clean Water, Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water acts, it somehow gets a free pass from all three. “I don’t know why people think we are exempt from the Clean Air Act; we just aren’t. Every aspect of oil and gas development is highly regulated,” Schuller said. Though the processes are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA delegates its authority to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.

Just this year, the EPA established new rules designed to capture methane emissions with oil and natural gas development. “This regulation was based on voluntary statewide testing that industry conducted. I actually testified before a senate subcommittee about this rule,” Schuller said. “I was and am in favor of it because it was based on our state efforts and we had such success with air reductions associated with it. Today we have extensive regulatory programs in the state that exceed federal regulations. Colorado is a leader in air regulation.”

Still, many farmers are concerned about the threat of water contamination from oil spills or leaky infrastructure. As of the third week in June, more than 175 oil and gas spills had been reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Though most of these didn’t involve chemicals or treated water leaving the well-pad, “The incidents of spills that contaminate water supplies are greater than I’m comfortable with. The ditch water I use for irrigation has to be protected. We simply cannot afford a Parachute Creek-like incident here,” said Waltermire, referring to the large spill earlier this year where benzene levels were found to be 3,600 times the state health limit within just a few feet of Parachute Creek, which flows into the Colorado River.

To monitor and ensure water quality, Weld County has offered a free water well test for any landowner. “They’ve been doing this for over a year, and with a large number of water wells and over 20,000 operating gas wells, the county has found no issues” of well or water contamination, said Doug Flanders, COGA’s director of Policy and External Affairs. 

While the oil and natural gas industry makes every effort to capture all the emissions that come back along with produced oil and natural gas, a portion does escape into the atmosphere. “The oil and gas industry is making strides to reduce the amount of fugitive methane and other gases, such as VOC (volatile organic compounds), through the use of new technology and practices,” Colglazier said. As far as how animals are affected by living in those environments? “It’s hard to say. Even Dr. Chris Urbina, the most recent Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), suggests that we do not have the proper data from properly conducted studies to say that production of oil and gas has any affect on humans, let alone agricultural animals in the area whose lifespan is significantly shorter,” said Colglazier. 

Going forward, in order to understand how oil and gas development is impacting air quality, CDPHE will soon begin a three-year study looking at air quality issues associated with oil and gas development. This study is based on ongoing research led by Colorado State University, which is looking at oil and gas emissions in Garfield County specifically. “We are optimistic that the results will provide all interested stakeholders the information needed to address health concerns associated with oil and gas drilling,” said Colglazier.

Achieving Co-Existence

COGA’s Schuller says much of the pushback against fracking is coming from urban dwellers and newcomers to the state. “Though oil and gas production is not new to Colorado, many people are new to operations,” said Schuller. “Our lives are so completely interdependent on oil and gas that we can’t separate ourselves from it. We can’t enjoy our lifestyles and then turn around and say development can’t happen here. What’s really important is not taking your cues from the perspective of a boutique farmer and say, ‘I don’t want oil and gas development nearby, period.’ Instead, here’s the challenge: Let’s develop this incredible energy source right. The questions are really: How are we going to resolve this? What options are on the table? Who is coming together to figure out how we can invest in the best water and energy solutions going forward?” 

Back in the North Fork, Waltermire concedes that though, “I’m not willing to close the door on co-existence, I just don’t think the current exploration techniques are compatible with the agritourism model we’re working with. But if there is a way, let’s talk about it. Lets have that conversation.”

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