Colorado citizens rise up against fracking

In the US state of Colorado, a ballot initiative has proposed to keep fracking at least 2,500 feet (around 760 meters) away from neighborhoods. But industry interests are fighting tooth and nail preserve the status quo, says L. Michael Buchsbaum.

On November 6th,  the votes of Colorado citizens could effectively prevent fracking on almost 85% of private land

Drilling applications tripled and oil production hit record highs (Copyright L. Michael Buchsbaum)


Though many associate Colorado with the beautiful Rocky Mountains or its world-class skiing, the state is now the U.S.’s seventh-largest oil producer and fifth-biggest supplier of natural gas with over 55,000 active wells, almost half of which were fracked over the last decade.

Last year Colorado produced 132 million barrels of oil— four times its 2010 volume. Drilling applications tripled and oil production hit record highs as the industry boomed again. As of March, the Wattenberg field, which lies north, east and most significantly, under metropolitan Denver, was producing over 1.92 billion cubic feet of gas and 331 thousand barrels of oil and condensate per day from its 23,000 active wells.

But fracking’s rapid expansion may finally be checked. On November 6th, citizens will vote on a citizen generated ballot initiative, Proposition 112, that could effectively prevent fracking on almost 85% of private land going forward.

Colorado already has a liberal track-record with its direct democratic initiatives. In 2004, it became the first state to demand Renewable Energy Standards (30% by 2020). And it is also known in the US as the first state to successfully challenge the federal government and legalize recreational cannabis.

The ballot initiative “Proposition 112” would stop fracking from further encroaching in residential neighborhoods. It would establish a constitutional mandate that all new fracking wells be drilled at least 2,500 feet (up from the current 500 feet) from any occupied structures, schools, hospitals, playgrounds or other “vulnerable” areas. But if it does, the state’s $31 billion oil and gas industry warns the boom will bust, sinking Colorado’s healthy economy along with it.

Now, after years of failing to reign in the rapidly expanding industry, activists are hopeful that Proposition 112 could finally halt fracking, particularly in the growing Front Range suburbs, currently home to almost three million people. They argue that bigger buffers are needed because residents are increasingly being exposed to noxious emissions of toluene, formaldehyde, xylene, and cancer-causing benzene. “Proposition 112 is really the response of mothers and grandmothers and teachers to a threat that has arrived on their doorstep,” said Anne Foster, spokeswoman for Colorado Rising, an advocacy group pushing the measure.

She and her allies point to a compendium of studies assembled and updated on the Physicians for Social Responsibility website illustrating fracking’s connections to cancer, low birth-weight babies, asthma, headaches and bloody noses. One recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health found that people living within 2,500 feet of wells are more likely to develop serious health issues.

Though other American states as well as nations throughout Europe and globally  have banned or restricted fracking because of established health and environmental impacts, Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, reminds that “this ballot initiative merely asks for some common-sense guidelines. It’s hard to imagine that anyone really thinks we should be fracking so close to playgrounds, homes and schools,” he said in a supporting message.

“Unfortunately in Colorado and many places in the US and throughout the world, governments are failing to protect our climate and our communities because of the influence that oil and gas has in politics,” said Suzanne Spiegel, who has led citizen efforts against fracking for much of the past decade. “As communities, we must take responsibility for pushing this transition and insisting on leaders who have the courage to choose life over short-term financial gain,” she said in an interview with Energy Transition.

Fracking accelerated during the Bush-Cheney era, but boomed under Obama, vaulting the U.S. to global oil production leadership. Repealing federal oversight including key passages of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Water Drinking Acts also eased fracking’s path.

While enriching Wall Street, the ensuing gas rush also unintentionally released vast amounts of dangerous fugitive methane, accelerating climate change. A new study released with contributing research from the University of Colorado, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Earth Research Labs (all in Boulder), found that the nation’s oil and gas industry annually releases over 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations — 60% more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had previously estimated.

Terming Prop 112 an immediate safety measure, proponents point to the April 2017 explosion that occurred in the town of Firestone when a cut flow-line from a gas well only 170 feet away killed two people and injured two others. Throughout the rest of the year, according to the Denver Post, at least a dozen other explosions and fires occurred along Colorado oil and gas industry pipelines, killing at least two workers and injuring many more. Nationwide, deadly gas pipeline explosions and other accidents are increasing, corresponding with the Trump administration’s gutting of remaining regulations.

“Fracktivists” have historically been thwarted almost as much by Democrats as Republicans in their efforts to stop fracking. In addition to spending over $30 million to flood the media with pro-fracking advertising, “Big Oil has succeeded in buying off both major political parties in our state,” wrote Food & Water Watch in a statement of support for Proposition 112.

Indeed, outgoing Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former oil and gas engineer, famously boasted during a U.S. Senate committee hearing in 2013 that he drank fracking fluid with Halliburton executives, proving the chemical cocktail’s innocuousness.

During his eight-year tenure, Hickenlooper consistently sided against any attempts at local controls over fracking. This culminated in the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling that only the state, and not towns and communities, has the right to regulate where and how drilling occurs. Jared Polis, the Democratic congressman from Boulder running to succeed Hickenlooper, has refused to back Proposition 112, even though he supported similar measures previously.

“Despite all of this anti-democratic maneuvering on the part of the oil and gas industry, its front groups and supporters, Coloradans finally have the opportunity to vote to protect themselves into the future,” wrote the editors of the Boulder Weekly. Another reason industry is fighting Prop 112 tooth and nail? They worry that if it passes, “we would see it pop up in a couple years in other oil-and-gas-producing states,” said Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council.

by

L. Michael Buchsbaum

L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende.

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