Voters in four Colorado cities may call timeout on fracking
Four ballot measures put forth by residents of Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette will give voters the chance to declare timeout — and, in one case, ban new drilling and industry-waste disposal.
This resistance reflects Colorado’s emergence as a battle zone for hashing out the national problem of wanting increased domestic energy production but also an environmentally sustainable future.
The proposed ban, in Lafayette, also would try to codify community rights as superior to corporate mineral interests.
A moratorium in Loveland is being delayed until judicial authorities resolve a legal challenge.
In Greeley — where state regulators have permitted more than 200 wells inside city limits — anti-drilling groups are drafting a moratorium for a special election in 2014. And several groups are weighing a statewide moratorium or ban.
Proponents say they’re driven by health and environmental concerns as companies operating about 51,000 gas and oil wells around Colorado invest billions to expand — including drilling near neighborhoods and rivers.
“People on Colorado’s Front Range enjoy their quality of life, and this industry represents an immediate threat to public health and that quality of life,” said Cliff Willmeng, a leader of the activist group East Boulder County United, which pushed the Lafayette initiative. “People see that the question of the environment is not an abstraction — it’s something we’re living through now.”
And industry forces are mobilizing, funding grassroots groups to fight the anti-fracking initiatives.
“Yes, we are financially supporting the local groups who oppose the bans on behalf of the 100,000 Colorado families who have an enormous stake in the outcome of these ballot initiatives,” Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Doug Flanders said in an e-mailed response. “These bans are not an energy plan.”
A complex set of Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules is designed to both facilitate drilling and protect the environment — COGCC’s dual mandate given by state lawmakers. However, spills have been happening at the rate of about one a day, contaminating soil and water, and recent state air data in rural Weld County show propane and butane pollution dozens of times worse than in cities. State authorities have yet to complete a human-health or environmental study of impacts.
But economic benefits of Colorado’s drilling boom are huge, and Gov. John Hickenlooper has been a steady supporter. State attorneys have sued Longmont, where the City Council toughened local zoning, to assert state regulatory authority. That lawsuit, looming for months, hasn’t been scheduled for trial.
A year ago, Longmont voters responded to the state’s lawsuit by adopting a citywide ban on hydraulic fracturing — drawing a lawsuit by COGA that was joined by the state.
Encana Oil and Gas USA would prefer that communities follow “a more constructive path,” company spokesman Doug Hock said. He pointed to an agreement with the town of Erie that allows some drilling while requiring Encana to meet town requirements — enforced by state regulators.
Without compromise, Hock said, “we are left in a situation where we cannot access minerals owned by members of the community and from which they derive income.”
Nationwide, the push for greater domestic production using multiwell platforms and horizontal drilling has led companies to move industrial activities into urbanized areas.
“People are concerned about impacts. This is understandable,” Hock said. “It is incumbent upon us as an industry to produce energy in a responsible manner, and the role of regulators and communities is to hold our feet to the fire to ensure that we do.”
State regulators declined to discuss the ballot questions. A spokesman e-mailed a statement saying COGCC works with communities statewide and that some had developed written agreements with oil and gas companies with provisions enforced by the agency.
And yet, four measures on ballots and more in the works suggest widening discomfort.
Conservation Colorado director Pete May-smith, who has pressed for tougher state-level protection rather than local measures, said the initiatives show “a fundamental lack of faith in the state’s ability or willingness to effectively regulate oil and gas.
“The answer is for the state to engage,” he said. “Make sure the strongest possible protections for our communities and our environment are in place. We need to see more.”
A proposed five-year moratorium in Fort Collins grew from concerns about scant information available about the potential health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, said Laurie Kadrich, the city’s community development director.
“From the citizens’ perspective, there’s reason to take pause. We know there are toxic chemicals contained in hydraulic fracturing fluids,” Kadrich said. “Before our community says go ahead, we want a timeout to see what the real health impacts are today and into the future.”
In Boulder, residents simply don’t trust state regulators to prioritize health and the environment, Councilwoman Suzanne Jones said.
“People are quite upset with the state’s appearing to care more about the industry than the citizens. Our local economy is very much tied to a high quality of life — the appeal of outdoor settings, clean air, beautiful vistas,” Jones said. “Allowing drilling within communities and our open space lands does not fit within that economic vision.”
Lafayette voters face a measure that has passed in several communities around the country and is being introduced in dozens more — complex legal wording that seemingly invites legal challenges over the extent of local authority.
City Council members have formally opposed the initiative. Trying to defuse activists’ momentum, they implemented a moratorium in August — even though no new well has been drilled in the area for more than 50 years.
Local elected officials say the citizen-pitched initiative — endorsed by the Boulder County Democratic Party — stands a chance.
“I’d be fine with supporting a ban,” not the other provisions, Councilman Pete d’Oronzio said.
But the fracking opponents pushing the initiative are passionate.
“(COGCC) has not acted in a way that is to protect the safety and the health of the citizens of Colorado with regard with oil and gas production,” d’Oronzio said. “They’re not acting on our behalf.”