One week after voters in Longmont banned the controversial energy drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, Colorado business and industry leaders gathered Tuesday on the west steps of the Capitol with hundreds of supporters to boisterously declare their support for the practice.
The decision by Longmont voters — who approved the ban by more than 59 percent in the counties of Boulder and Weld — raised several uncertainties. At the top of the list is whether the city charter amendment could undermine the state’s control over oil and gas regulations. The industry is also concerned that it might lead to other towns and cities across the state implementing their own prohibitions.
The issue has grown as oil and gas companies have begun to move their operations away from the rural communities of the Western Slope and towards the Front Range, where populations are heavily concentrated and concerns have intensified. In Longmont, talk of plans to drill near schools and parks sent activists into a tizzy, which resulted in Question 300 on the November ballot. The rule-making approved by the Longmont City Council in July includes well setbacks, additional water sampling/testing requirements and a ban of so-called “fracking” in residential zones.
As proponents were gathering support for the initiative, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, were mounting a lawsuit against Longmont for enacting rules and regulations independent of the state’s authority.
The lawsuit filed by the state is still pending, and just how the vote last Tuesday might affect it is still unclear. The ban itself could bring a second lawsuit by the state, and the Colorado Supreme Court has already ruled against municipalities banning oil and gas drilling.
Colorado Springs is also considering enacting its own rules. The City Council has already given preliminary approval, and a formal vote is scheduled for Nov. 27. But Colorado Springs officials have promised to re-evaluate following revisions to state oil and gas laws that are currently being discussed by the COGCC.
Hickenlooper has been adamant about letting the COGCC finish its work. Eric Brown, a spokesman for the governor, said it is important to establish a statewide standard.
“We understand the concerns about fracking and the need to do it safely and effectively while also protecting the environment. We also believe a statewide regulatory process makes more sense than a maze of different and competing local rules and regulations on topics that can be resolved by good science and stakeholder engagement through the COGCC,” he said.
The rules that would be revised were established in 2008, and could lead to stricter state mandates, especially concerning drilling and water testing. Proposals that have been suggested include mandatory testing of groundwater before and after new wells are drilled, and setbacks of new wells from schools and hospitals.
The commission met on Wednesday to discuss the issues during a day-long hearing at which dozens of environmental activists and the energy industry offered testimony that either supported stricter water testing requirements, or proposed a statewide model that institutes a more measured approach for the industry, respectively. Several local government representatives suggested that the state needs to strengthen its testing requirements at more locations and examine quality following drilling.
The commission agreed to take up the issue again at its meeting on Dec. 10-11. A hearing will also take place then to address the setback issue.
The current proposal calls for statewide water testing that includes two water-quality samples within a mile of a well site before a well is drilled, up to 18 months after drilling is completed and within five years of the project’s completion.
“We know groundwater is being protected in the state in harmony with robust oil and gas development because we have the third-party data,” said Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, or COGA, the trade organization for the industry in Colorado. “We would have liked more time to implement our voluntary program, but we understand the pressure the commission is under.”
Surprisingly, Shell Oil, which is conducting operations in Routt County, worked with the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, to propose an alternative. Their plan would require testing of all water sources within a half-mile of the well site, rather than the mile that is currently being proposed.
But not all activists support compromising with water-quality testing. “Proposals from the state and industry fall far short of what is required to ensure citizens that groundwater near drilling and fracking operations is safe to drink,” said Mike Chiropolos, lands counsel for Western Resource Advocates. “Colorado needs a comprehensive monitoring program that protects public health and water quality by assuring early detection and swift action in cases of contamination… We can’t allow companies to cherry-pick the sources they want to sample.”
Industry, business community advocate for ‘smarter rules’
But as the COGCC continues its work, hundreds of industry supporters and business leaders are demanding that the state not cave to pressure. Instead, the group is calling for “smarter rules with business sense.”
“We’re talking about the importance of the entire industry, not just for oil and gas, but for our entire economy,” said John Brackney, president and chief executive of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, who organized Tuesday’s “Prosper Colorado” rally along with industry leaders.
The oil and gas industry in Colorado directly employs more than 40,000 people and supports jobs for more than 107,000, according to statistics provided by COGA. The employment provides an estimated $6.5 billion in total labor income and $31 billion in economic output annually, according to the trade organization. It is estimated that $1.1 billion was delivered to public coffers by the industry in 2010.
Fracking supporters maintain that it is a safe practice that has been used for 50 years. The process fractures rock by employing the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase the extraction rate. Industry leaders point out that they already disclose most ingredients, and that safety precautions are taken to ensure that an accident would not leak into groundwater. There has never been a documented case with state health officials of fracking leading to groundwater contamination in Colorado.
“Some people think that fracking’s an odd word, or a bad word,” continued Brackney. “No, this is one of the coolest innovations potentially in the history of the world.”
Kelly Brough, president and chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, agreed with her colleague, stating, “Fracking is not a dirty word… As a matter of fact, it’s been around for over 50 years, and we’ve proven multiple times that it is safe and can be done in a way that doesn’t hurt us or our environment.”
Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce — who has watched as drilling activities expanded out of the Western Slope — said it is the business community’s obligation to stand up for the energy industry in Colorado.
“We stand together as a business community across the state to support an economic engine in our energy industries,” said Schwenke.
For others, the issue is about property rights. Amy Williams, with Citizens Supporting Property Rights, said it should be up to landowners to decide who they lease their land to, and what the energy companies do with it.
“Silence… is no longer an option,” she said. “Farmers and ranchers have been the land stewards for generations, and have a vested interest in ensuring oil and natural gas is brought to the surface responsibly.”
Firestone Mayor Chad Auer also attended the rally, suggesting that the state needs a unified set of regulations in order to bring certainty: “When it comes to our energy policies, I believe the authority and expertise to regulate technical aspects of drilling rests solely with the state. Equally important, a uniform set of regulations protects our business interests and ensures a predictable regulatory process.”
Justin Williams, a self-employed water hauler for the oil industry in North Dakota who spoke at the rally, agreed that without a predictable set of rules and regulations, companies would not want to conduct business in Colorado. He has some fear that the ban in Longmont could spread, but he is confident that such prohibitions would be overturned in court.
“It has the potential to be a domino, although, I don’t know if that many town councils are willing to face a lawsuit on overstepping their bounds on preventing fracking,” he said. “Morally, I can understand how they want to stop it, but they can’t [legally] survive.”
Elise Jones, the former executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, who was just elected to Boulder County’s Board of Commissioners, acknowledged that the Longmont ban is likely to be challenged in court. But she said the message voters sent is important.
“There’s a lot of concern out there, and I think the biggest illustration of that is the vote last week in Longmont…” she said, pointing out that the oil and gas industry fought the ban with more than $500,000. In comparison, supporters raised just under $30,000.
“You can argue that the ban won’t withstand judicial challenge, but you would be missing the point, which is that if you passed a ban in Longmont under those circumstances, you can probably pass one in a great many communities up and down the Front Range,” added Jones.
‘Hecklers’ crash the party
On several occasions, organizers of the rally had to address “hecklers,” who would occasionally make their anti-fracking opinions known. They represented small groups of a larger coalition of Colorado citizens who have been organizing to stop the drilling process in Colorado.
Efforts in Longmont, Erie, Aurora, Commerce City, Denver, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Louisville have begun to gain momentum. Activists are calling for — at the very least — strict state rules and regulations that mandate setbacks of a minimum of 1,000 feet from residential areas, schools and hospitals.
The anti-fracking coalition also predominantly favors local regulation versus state control, suggesting that individual communities know what is best for its citizens.
Following the rally, Charlie Montgomery, an energy organizer with Conservation Colorado, blasted the governor and rally organizers for being out of touch with the will of Coloradans.
“With Governor Hickenlooper’s administration standing in the way of adequate oil and gas protections, it’s no wonder that Colorado communities are up in arms,” he said. “If the state won’t step up to the plate and take the lead in protecting citizens from the heavy industrial activity of drilling and fracking, what happened last week in Longmont is going to be repeated up and down the Front Range.”