Front Range drilldown

In the fight over oil and gas regulation, local control gains ground.

  • Adam Stenftenagel, of Boulder, at right, holds an anti-fracking sign outside the Boulder County Courthouse before a June Boulder County commissioners meeting regarding the fracking moratorium.

    Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera
  • An oil well being drilled on a property across from a subdivision near Frederick, Colorado.

    AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
 

FORT COLLINS, COLORADO

On a chilly March night, city councilmembers faced an unusual sight: citizens imploring them to increase taxes. They had packed council chambers to plead for a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within city limits. Industry and state officials, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, intimated that such a move could get Fort Collins sued for overstepping local authority.  Anti-fracking proponents didn't blink at the potential costs of a lawsuit. One told city leaders: "Feel free to raise my property taxes."

Since 2006, the number of oil and gas wells being developed has nearly doubled along Colorado's Front Range, thanks to advances in technologies such as horizontal drilling and fracking (injecting chemical-laden fluids into wells to stimulate production). But the energy boom in a region of 4.3 million people, stretching from Fort Collins to Pueblo, is colliding with the steady growth of cities and farming towns turned bedroom communities. Wellpads and pumpjacks operate close to houses, schools and community centers. Fracking fluid and wastewater spills, air pollution spikes and evidence of groundwater contamination have roused suburban activists who are tired of waiting for state or federal laws to address their concerns.

Despite having less than a dozen active wells in the city, Fort Collins got the message. Councilmembers approved a citywide ban to wild applause and cheers.

The movement to gain local control over drilling and fracking is taking off around the West, from rural New Mexico to Southern California. Using moratoriums and bans, ballot initiatives and referendums, activists hope to win politically, if not officially. They may not halt energy development, but they're already influencing how drillers operate and forcing states to improve industrial oversight.

"We're getting most of the battles where drilling starts to move into areas that haven't seen it before -- where it's almost in some suburban backyards in places," says Bruce Baizel, the Durango, Colo.-based energy program director for Earthworks and the Oil & Gas Accountability Project. "Combine that with a sense that the states are not adequately regulating or enforcing the regulation, and that really sets it off."

Though grassroots groups are clamoring for local action, city and county governments remain handcuffed, because Colorado and other Western states have authority over energy development. Cities can set their own land-use rules, particularly if they have "home-rule status," which enables additional local controls. But both the state and industry argue that local governments cannot prevent an energy company from drilling, since that would deprive it of its mineral-development rights. A 1992 Colorado Supreme Court case struck down a drilling ban in Greeley.

Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the governor, sets oil and gas rules for the state. That includes establishing measures to reduce and mitigate air pollution, impacts to groundwater and rivers, and nuisances such as dust and noise. When fracking took off in more rural parts of Colorado in the 2000s, the state government, under then-Gov. Bill Ritter, responded to public pressure by creating tougher standards for aquifer protection, waste management and removal, completion and reclamation of wells, and disclosure of fracking chemicals.

Ritter, who now runs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University and advises other states on energy development, says Colorado's program is a model, even exceeding some federal standards. "When we passed our set of rules, we were the first state across the country to modernize them," Ritter says. But with Front Range development occurring slowly, "we didn't pay the same amount of attention to gas extraction taking place in close proximity to inhabited communities."

That suburban rush has come as technological improvements have made developing shale rock formations, which exist beneath the Front Range and hold both natural gas and oil, more feasible. Fracking has increased domestic natural gas supply so quickly, there's now a glut. Prices have dropped, so companies are targeting oil. The Niobrara shale play, beneath northeastern Colorado, went from producing 83,000 barrels of oil in 2008 to over 4.1 million barrels in 2012, and analysts say the figures could quadruple by 2020.

As drilling has moved into more populated areas, the oil and gas commission has increased drilling setbacks and added several rules, in part because of public concern, says Ginny Brannon, the assistant director for water and energy in the state's Department of Natural Resources. In early 2013, the commission established mandatory groundwater sampling within half a mile of a well before and after drilling. Colorado is the only state in the country that requires post-drilling monitoring, Brannon adds.

This spring, Colorado's Legislature considered several bills to defuse the Front Range fracking battles. Legislation would have enforced stricter groundwater monitoring in the booming Wattenberg Field just north of Denver (which is now subject to less stringent requirements than most of the state), increased operator fines for spills, and tried to reduce conflicts of interest on the oil and gas commission. Several bills moved rapidly through committees, but with Gov. Hickenlooper pressing for their defeat, all of them failed.

On the Front Range, anti-fracking activists find themselves up against a governor whom many of them helped elect. A petroleum geologist-turned-downtown-Denver-developer-turned-politician, Hickenlooper has been a conservation leader on other fronts, but he has surprised environmentalists with his drilling zeal.

"The state is telling local governments to just trust us on oil and gas regulations, but it's difficult for the public to have much confidence when the governor goes to Congress and (boasts about) drinking fracking fluid in front of a Senate hearing" as he did last February, says Mike Freeman, a Denver-based Earthjustice staff attorney.

Instead, with the push for reforms at the Capitol and communities backing local bans, Freeman says a resistance movement is "snowballing on several different fronts."

Jodee Brekke, a human resources manager and single mom raising three kids outside Denver in Commerce City, had never heard of fracking until she saw a wellpad being cleared behind a Starbucks, a quarter-mile from her home, in November 2011. Concerned that her daughters' nighttime nosebleeds and "strange rashes" might be related to drilling underway in the area, she and others questioned local officials about the lack of neighborhood consultation. They wondered whether fracking would trigger the movement of toxic plumes left beneath the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a former chemical-weapons facility. A committee of citizens, industry and city and state representatives eventually brokered agreements for companies not to drill within a mile of the Arsenal, to notify locals before drilling new wells, and to offer nuisance-control plans. This year's state rule changes took similar steps. But Brekke felt local drilling should be suspended until more studies were done. The process, she says, is "a disaster."

Frustrated, she began networking with moms in other cities, and last summer, they organized several local grassroots groups into the Colorado chapter of the Mothers Project, a national anti-fracking movement. Instead of taking her kids swimming last July 4, Brekke dragged them to Longmont to collect signatures to get a fracking ban initiative on the November ballot. "We're not working for companies," she says. "The only thing we're looking out for is our kids."

The Mothers Project and others have pushed local governments to hit the "pause" or even "stop" buttons on fracking through moratoriums and bans. Allies, including Wes Wilson and Phil Doe, both former government scientists and whistleblowers, have served as technical experts, updating activists on new research linking fracking and health risks. The Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has worked with people in Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere to draft local bans and ordinances rooted in recognizing the legal rights of communities and nature.