Can two quintessential Western booms co-exist?

The friction between Colorado’s growing population and gas-drilling infrastructure remains explosive, sometimes literally.

 

There really isn’t any time of day when you won’t suddenly need to slam on your brakes to avoid a pileup on Interstate 25 north of Denver. I’ve driven it dozens of times in recent years, visiting family in Fort Collins and Windsor, Colorado, and the traffic gets more dense and perilous each trip.

The reasons are clearly visible: Dozens of brand-new subdivisions and malls carved out of former fields to accommodate the influx of new residents. Greater Denver is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and the northern Front Range, home to Weld and Larimer counties, is expected to gain another 660,530 people by 2050, more than doubling its 2015 population of 617,401.

Look carefully, and you’ll notice a second infrastructure that’s also expanding, this one comprised of pump jacks, drill rigs, pipes and compressor stations. The nation’s fourth-largest oil and gas reserve lies underground here, and industry is rushing to bring it to market, even if that means drilling in the middle of suburbia.

Can these two quintessential Western booms co-exist? They’ve managed for a couple of decades, but it’s an uneasy relationship. Gas-drilling sites today are often surrounded by tall walls, as if sleeping in separate bedrooms might help to save a troubled marriage. But the friction remains explosive, sometimes literally. Last December, a quiet neighborhood in Windsor was rocked by explosions and fires at a cheek-by-jowl gas facility in the town. No one died, and the fires were contained before any houses burned, but as Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz carefully explain in this issue, it could have been much worse.

Incidents like this, combined with unsuccessful attempts by towns to ban or more strictly regulate drilling, have inspired citizen activists to put a measure on the ballot that would create a larger buffer between drilling operations and neighborhoods. Current law requires wells to be set back 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. The referendum would extend that to 2,500 feet and allow local governments to increase it even more.

Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News
Proposition 112 is a fairly blunt tool, and it doesn’t address some related issues, such as water and air pollution. But as one local activist told me, its victory would send a powerful message across the country to industry and state regulators: You need to do a better job of protecting the people. Industry has responded by pouring tens of millions of dollars into ads denouncing the measure as “extreme” and warning that it would kill jobs and starve local governments of badly needed mineral tax revenues.

This is just one of many critical issues and races being decided in the West’s midterm elections. And as we learned so dramatically in 2016, election results have real-world impacts. Wherever you are, and whatever your political inclinations, I encourage you to get involved and vote. Your community and country need you.

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