Fractivists target Denver to build support

A new campaign launches to stop fracking before it starts in and around Denver.


Much of Denver’s 21st-century growth has populated the northeastern section of the city, namely the Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. Affordable homes and a popular library and golf course helped draw 21,000 new people and a diverse mix of white, black and Hispanic families to Green Valley Ranch between 2000 and 2010. Pat Hamill, chief executive of Oakwood Homes, the subdivision’s developer, has called the area “the best-kept secret in Denver.”

There’s another well-kept secret out at Green Valley Ranch: Oakwood Homes held onto many of the mineral rights beneath the houses, and leased them to Anadarko Energy, which in turn sold the rights to ConocoPhillips, both major players in the energy boom and fracking frenzy along Colorado’s Front Range and the oil-rich Niobrara shale. The strategy allows developers to cash in on energy development – despite the potential impacts to homeowners who often figure out the deal only after they move in.

Oil and gas development near homes in Frederick, Colorado, north of Denver (Joshua Zaffos).
While energy pressures have spread around Denver, the city hasn’t seen much drilling within its borders; 76 wells surround the airport and pre-date its construction. Now, a coalition of environmentalists, families, social justice organizations, and restaurants and breweries are launching an effort to avert Mile High City fracking before it happens.

The Don’t Frack Denver coalition is calling on Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the city council to pass a fracking moratorium to prevent any drilling in outlying eastern communities, including Green Valley Ranch and the historic African-American Montbello neighborhood. And that moratorium is just one prong of the coalition's attack.  They're also asking city leaders to weigh in on the Bureau of Land Management’s forthcoming management plan for South Park (the wide-open, rural mountain valley southwest of Denver, not the TV show), which could allow energy leasing on 280,000 acres of grassland.

“It’s significant because Denver gets nearly 40 percent of its drinking water supply from that area,” says Sam Schabacker, of environmental nonprofit Food and Water Watch, “and it’s not a question of if there’s going to be a spill; it’s when.”

Most of South Park’s public lands are already open to leasing, with conditions, says Kyle Sullivan, spokesman for the BLM’s Front Range District Office, but there is no current oil and gas development. The agency is about to start gathering comments for a revised regional management plan. The revision will include a master leasing plan, which is a relatively new approach to reviewing energy development in high-interest regions. In the meantime, a 2014 statewide BLM memo set aside all areas under master leasing plans as off-limits to oil and gas leases.

As far as considering impacts to 1.3 million people’s water supply, Sullivan says, “we’re certainly taking that into consideration, and we’re hoping to get additional public input into how to best manage these conflicting demands.”

Active and inactive gas wells in Northeast Denver. Map from Food and Water Watch.

The Don’t Frack Denver campaign is launching just before a state oil and gas task force wraps up months of public meetings. At the end of February, the task force will make recommendations to state lawmakers to reduce conflicts between industry and homeowners and to increase safeguards, such as setbacks between wellpads and houses, to limit health and environmental impacts. The effort started last fall after Governor John Hickenlooper got fracking foes to pull competing ballot measures from the November 2014 election. (One ballot initiative that would have blocked state severance tax dollars from going to counties that ban fracking was bankrolled by Oakwood Homes’ Hamill.) Proponents of the city moratorium seem undeterred by the fact that industry lawsuits have beaten back other Front Range communities’ moratoria and bans in recent months. 

But Schabacker and other fractivists have low expectations for the task force, since participating industry reps, citizens, and state and local officials must compromise and agree on the final recommendations. And the coalition and its inclusion of diverse social-justice and business groups could represent a major leap forward in building broader opposition to fracking and development near homes.

Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a Denver-based, Latino social-justice group, focuses primarily on education and health. But organizer Monica Acosta says Padres Unidos got involved with the new campaign because fracking in east Denver would be “an attack on working-class communities of color.”

Denver citizens opposing fracking at a Don't Frack Denver press conference this week. Photo by Sam Schabacker.

“In conversations with our membership, we’ve noticed there’s a lack of information about fracking, where it goes on, why we should care, and the disproportionate impacts on communities of color that historically have little political power,” Acosta says. “‘Fracking’ (the word) doesn’t even have a direct translation into Spanish.”

Acosta says her group will be educating and mobilizing members and other Latinos on the issue. That could marshal a significant and up-til-now overlooked voter bloc if a citywide – or statewide – fracking ban hits the ballot. Despite the defeats for the Front Range anti-fracking movement, proponents are looking to New York’s recent statewide fracking ban as precedent for a successful initiative.

“We think it’s important to proactively figure out what is taking place before fracking begins (in Denver),” Schabacker says. “As we’ve seen across the state, once drilling begins, it is nearly impossible to stop.”

Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor for High Country News. He tweets at @jzaffos.

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