About 200 opponents of the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, gathered at Civic Center Park on Tuesday to protest the practice, as state regulators and local governments grapple with ways to strike a balance between allowing its use while also protecting communities.
Frack Free Colorado, a local coalition of those opposed to fracking, organized the free concert at Civic Center Park along with national groups opposed to the process. The event included such celebrities as musician Jakob Dylan and actresses Mariel Hemingway and Daryl Hannah.
“We’re challenging our audience to be part of the change as they learn and dance to celebrate the future we want to see,” Hemingway — who has started a company called The Willingway, which aims to connect people to nature — said before the event. “Part of that change is looking at how we build our own nest and commit to personal action.”
Speaker after speaker spoke of the concerns they share over the process, which fractures rock by employing the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase the extraction rate in recovering oil and natural gas. Fears have grown that some of those chemicals can leak into groundwater and contaminate the air.
Concerns have intensified as energy companies have increased drilling along the Front Range, expanding operations outside the Western Slope where fracking had mostly been contained. With wells being established or proposed in Denver metro communities near Aurora in Arapahoe County and in Longmont in Boulder and Weld counties, to name a couple, citizens have been increasingly making their voices known.
Rod Brueske, who lives in eastern Boulder County near Weld County — which he calls “Well County” — purchased his farm property about two years ago. Within six to eight months of living there, he started to notice drilling activity that he says shook the very foundation on which his home sits. Shortly after, Brueske says he started to notice a funny taste in his mouth, similar to the aftertaste following the placement of a nine-volt battery on your tongue. In the meantime, he says he can see flames flaring from the tops of the wells.
Brueske says he’s made complaints to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), but that he has still yet to see any resolve. Records indicate that the COGCC is aware of the complaint and is seeking information from the energy company responsible for the well, Encana Corporation.
“They’re waiting for the person that perpetrated to give them information so that they can decide what to do about it,” Brueske complained.
“The state has displayed gross negligence,” he continued. “Their conservation commission, and I say conservation as a joke… is stacked with industry pros.”
Local versus state control
Questions over whether the state can properly regulate the oil and gas industry in local communities is being discussed in Longmont and Colorado Springs where the two municipalities are working on their own regulations.
Longmont already enacted its rules, which include imposing a well setback of at least 150 feet; additional water sampling/testing requirements; a ban on oil and gas well facilities in residential zones; and an independent chemical disclosure rule. For having enacted its own rules, Longmont is currently facing the wrath of the state. State attorneys for the COGCC are suing Longmont, arguing that the city has overstepped its rule-making authority, which they maintain should exclusively be held by the state.
Longmont residents who are frustrated with the state have launched a municipal ballot initiative, in which voters will decide next month whether to ban fracking in Longmont city limits.
In Colorado Springs, the City Council on Monday moved forward with a proposal to establish its own rules and regulations for the city. A formal vote is scheduled for Nov. 27. The Council says the city will re-evaluate the rules — including those addressing setbacks and water testing — after the COGCC finishes a rule-making revision process, which is currently underway.
Given the state’s lawsuit against Longmont, the certainty of Colorado Springs’ rules and regulations are still very much uncertain. The city could be facing a similar lawsuit, though it is likely that state attorneys will wait to see the outcome of the Longmont case, and also the outcome of COGCC’s revisions.
In the meantime, El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday gave initial approval to an agreement with the COGCC over water testing. The commission does not require groundwater testing, but the agreement tentatively approved by El Paso County requires baseline testing of wells before drilling begins, and again a year later. The memorandum of understanding is expected to be approved on Nov. 15.
Wendy Leonard, an activist with local anti-fracking group Erie Rising, says that while she’s hopeful the COGCC will develop stricter rules and regulations, she still believes local governments are better suited to govern the industry.
“When our state is letting us down and under-regulating industrial activity that’s a stone’s throw from our homes and our schools and our parks, then absolutely, we’ve got to take charge…” said Leonard. “I think the people should have a right to say what they want in their town, and if they can get a vote to get it out of town, then so be it.”
But Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has come under fire for supporting fracking and the energy industry in Colorado, has placed his faith behind the COGCC. The commission is currently attempting to revise state regulations that were established in 2008, which could lead to stricter state mandates.
Proposals that have been suggested by the COGCC include mandatory testing of groundwater before and after new wells are drilled to offer comparable data; a 750-foot setback of new wells from schools and hospitals; and increased community outreach programs.
Environmentalists are calling for a buffer of at least 1,000 feet from homes, which could become a sticking point as negotiations continue.
But Jep Seman, an attorney for the Colorado Petroleum Association, says there is no need for the revisions. He points out that there have already been industry and environmental stakeholder groups put together to address the concerns, and that no recommendations for additional rules were recommended.
Seman says there are already local government designees to the COGCC that advise on the needs and concerns of local communities. He also points out that energy companies already voluntarily test water.
“I think a lot of the noise that you hear is a clever way to cloak anti-industry sentiment,” said Seman. “Those folks, even if you have a 100-percent guarantee, they probably still wouldn’t tone it down.”
He says there has never been an instance in Colorado where fracking has caused a groundwater problem, adding that the drilling process has been taking place in Colorado for nearly 50 years.
As for the setback proposal, Seman says his trade organization is still sorting though the “complicated” proposal.
In the end, however, Seman says whatever regulations are crafted, it needs to be the state that does the governing.
“We feel very strongly that the state is the best place for the industry to be regulated,” he said. “It’s a very technical, very complex business, and one set of rules governing the entire state is really the appropriate way to regulate the industry, and not run the risk of chasing industry investment away because suddenly a company finds itself complying with rules and regulations on all levels of government.”