Whose Colorado? Fracking debate pits families against 'economic engine'

Courtesy of Erika Deakin
Erie, Colo., resident Erika Deakin jogs on a trail near her home.
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Without a doubt, hydraulic fracturing has been instrumental in moving the United States toward energy independence. To many residents and environmental groups, however, the term fracking – as it’s commonly known – remains a dirty word. In Colorado, the tension between these disparate views has come to a head in the form of Proposition 112, a November ballot initiative that would require a 2,500-foot setback from buildings and streams for all new fracking wells. The local debate is a microcosm for broader national tensions around fracking. And it raises questions about competing values and rights that can be messy to disentangle. The issues at play are “core to what we think about on a day-to-day basis,” says University of Colorado Prof. Tanya Heikkila, “from our pocketbooks to our kids’ health to, if you’re a government, how are we going to finance things. All of those are just really critical questions that we as a society have to grapple with in the end.”

Why We Wrote This

Depending on whom you ask, fracking has either been a boon for or a scourge on the United States. In Colorado, both visions have played out. And this November, the two perspectives face off on the ballot.

When Erika Deakin and her husband bought their first home together, in Erie, Colo., they were surprised when a fracking well sprouted up just behind their house, with a drill that was so loud it kept them up at night. They were even more surprised to discover there was nothing they could do about it.

A few years later, more wells appeared, with more constant noise. But it wasn’t until Ms. Deakin, her husband, and their two young girls moved to their current neighborhood a few years later that things got really bad. Before long, two different sets of wells went in close by.

The noise “reverberated around this area of the neighborhood so loud that hundreds of us were not sleeping for days,” says Deakin. A horrible smell settled in, making it impossible to open windows – a particular hardship with no air conditioning. Decibel readers in their children’s room at night gave readings of 70 or 80 decibels. And with every complaint, they were told the companies were “in compliance.”

Why We Wrote This

Depending on whom you ask, fracking has either been a boon for or a scourge on the United States. In Colorado, both visions have played out. And this November, the two perspectives face off on the ballot.

“If I can’t open my windows, and I can’t jog outside on the trails by my house, and I can’t sleep at night, and my daughters can’t sleep at night – in compliance with what?” Deakin asks.

Welcome to Colorado’s Front Range, where some of the state’s fastest-growing communities happen to sit atop some of its richest oil and gas deposits. It’s become a backdrop for a contentious fight over fracking that has culminated, this year, in a ballot initiative that would require a 2,500-foot setback from buildings and streams for all new wells, a five-fold increase from the current 500-foot requirement (1,000 feet from schools and hospitals). It’s a proposition that proponents like Deakin say is the only option that’s fair and safe, and that detractors say would amount to a virtual ban on new drilling in Colorado, with a massive cost to the state in jobs and revenue.

The current debate in Colorado is a microcosm for broader national tensions around fracking in the United States. A nationwide boom in hydraulic fracturing, as the process is formally known, has been instrumental in helping the United States to achieve energy independence. But the process of injecting liquid into bedrock at high pressure to extract fossil fuels has ignited numerous concerns among environmental groups and residents, that range from noise complaints and water quality issues to risks of earthquakes and explosions.

That debate has been forced to a head in Colorado, where an uptick in development of fracking wells has coincided with a population boom. This confluence has meant that more residents are living in close proximity to wells, a particular concern in the wake of a 2017 house explosion that killed two people in Firestone.

The Colorado fight is high stakes and involves big money, with industry spending upwards of $30 million to defeat the measure. It also raises questions about competing values and rights that can be messy to disentangle.

“A lot of people on one side will frame it as, ‘Oh, it’s just the industry with their spin,’ or ‘Oh, it’s just those crazy moms against fracking with their spin,’ ” says Tanya Heikkila, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. “It’s much more complex than that.”

The issues that come into play, she says, include property rights and mineral rights, what authority local government should have to regulate industrial activity, and residents’ concerns about health, safety, and outdoor living.

“It’s super core to what we think about on a day-to-day basis, from our pocketbooks to our kids’ health to, if you’re a government, how are we going to finance things. All of those are just really critical questions that we as a society have to grapple with in the end,” says Professor Heikkila.

Tension on the Front Range

Fracking tensions aren’t new to Colorado, which has more than 50,000 active oil and gas wells, and as the state’s demographics have shifted, so has the debate. In the past decade, several towns and counties enacted fracking bans or moratoria, only to have them struck down by the state supreme court in 2016. In 2014, Gov. John Hickenlooper struck a deal to avoid two anti-fracking ballot measures – one requiring greater setbacks and one giving local communities the ability to regulate energy development – by creating a statewide task force to study the effects of fracking. And in 2016, activists just missed getting a setback initiative on the ballot.

The tensions have been exacerbated by rapid growth in the Front Range communities north of Denver, which happens to also be where much of Colorado’s mineral wealth resides. “We’re building homes on top of historic oil and gas fields in Colorado,” says Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, noting that 7 of the 10 fastest growing communities in Colorado sit over oil and gas reserves. “That’s where you’ve begun to see this tension.”

Mr. Haley acknowledges that the industry did a poor job for years of communicating with Coloradans, but he believes it’s getting better. In some cases, he says, communities have been able to negotiate larger setbacks with drilling companies, and he believes that better technology will solve some of the other issues, like noise complaints.

But Proposition 112, as the current setback requirement is known, is a giant overreach, Haley says. “The way this is written is effectively a ban on new oil and gas development in Colorado,” he says. “I don’t think a majority of Coloradans want to run this industry out of the state. For a lot of us it is the fabric of our society.”

Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune/AP
Demonstrators urge others to vote against Proposition 112 during a rally put on by the Mayors Against Proposition 112 on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at the Weld County Courthouse in Greeley, Colo. The event hosted mayors from several northern Colorado cities voicing their concerns about Proposition 112.

That was the theme at a recent rally against Proposition 112 in Colorado Springs, a more conservative part of the state that doesn’t have any fracking, though it does have some oil- and gas-dependent jobs.

“The fine print of the ballot measure is the half-mile setback, all across the state, not just in residential areas,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, speaking to about 50 people gathered to protest the measure. “The Hickenlooper administration says 85 percent of state and private land would be subject to a massive drilling ban. That's how a 2,500-foot setback becomes an effective ban on one of the state's most important economic engines.”

Speaker after speaker hit the same points:

  • Proposition 112 would hurt the state economically, affecting 150,000 jobs by 2030 and costing the state’s economy $200 billion over the next decade, and up to $9 billion in lost taxes.
  • It would cost Colorado schools and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars that oil and gas companies pay – including rural school districts where a majority of funding comes from property taxes paid by oil and gas companies.
  • Fracking is safe, and Colorado has some of the strictest regulations anywhere.
  • Both major gubernatorial candidates and Denver’s mayor, among others, have come out against Proposition 112.
  • And the proposition is being pushed by “fringe environmental activists” in Boulder and Washington who hate the energy industry.

“If this proposition goes through, we’re out of a job,” says Dan Spring, an assembly worker at Springs Fabrication, who came to the rally with several co-workers. Springs Fabrication, a metal manufacturer, has been working with Urban Solution Group, a local Colorado Springs company, on ways to keep noise levels down, he notes. “We’ve been fracking here [in Colorado] for a long time, and it wasn’t a problem until somebody made a stink about it.”

‘All we have is our voice.’

From the other side, it looks different. Colorado Rising, the main group behind the proposition, disagrees with a lot of the figures touted by the industry, including the claims of economic devastation and job loss.

Direct oil and gas jobs account for “less than 1 percent of the jobs in the state,” says Anne Lee Foster, a volunteer organizer with Colorado Rising. “Industries like tourism, technology, housing, and outdoor recreation contribute significantly more, and all of those industries are threatened by oil and gas development.”

They’re also facing a David and Goliath fight when it comes to spending. Colorado Rising raised about $700,000, most of which it spent gathering petition signatures. Protect Colorado, the industry-funded group fighting Proposition 112, has raised more than $30 million, virtually all from energy companies.

Deakin, the Erie resident, says she entered this battle reluctantly. “I’m the opposite of an activist. I’m just a working mom trying to live my life and enjoy the home I love.... The industry is spending $30 million against this cause,” and more if you count years of propaganda, she says. “All we have is our voice. And that’s very Coloradan.”

Deakin’s home is in a typical suburban development of quiet winding streets and close-spaced, well maintained houses. Off to the west, an idyllic view of snow-capped peaks rises up. And across the street from Deakin’s house is a community jogging and bike trail that leads down to an open field, where multiple active wells are visible, well within 2,500 feet of the houses.

Deakin points them out, ticking off the company names and when the wells went in.

What started as one or two wells turned into 13, then 45 wells on a pad just up the street, and another 55 slated to go in between her neighborhood and another one. “What we’re facing is an onslaught,” she says.

Periodically, she’s been asked why she doesn’t move, and it’s a question that bothers her. “I love my community,” she says. “I love my kids’ school, and I love my neighbors. I love the kids’ dance school.... I do not think that the industry should be able to drive residents out of their own communities.”

For Heidi Henkel, a mother of two who lives in nearby Broomfield, the biggest concerns are health and safety. She lists off examples of explosions and dispersion of benzene, a colorless, flammable liquid.

“We have 40 [fracking wells] being put right next to homes and schools, places where kids play,” says Ms. Henkel, founder of Broomfield Moms Active Community, which organizes around political issues affecting the most vulnerable. “Two of our schools are going to be doing active explosion evacuation drills.”

And, like Deakin, she feels powerless. “We’ve been trying to have a seat at the table, and we just don’t.”

Despite the contentiousness of this current debate, Heikkila, the CU professor, says the fracking conversation in Colorado has actually had more of a middle ground, and more ability to compromise, than in many areas.

That process was visible when the state worked to resolve regulations around chemical disclosure requirements and methane rulemaking, Heikkila says, and she hopes the parties can ultimately work through the current conflict too.

“I think this system-level conflict will always be brewing,” she says, but “Colorado does exhibit this pretty strong moderate middle and also an ability for people to come together and resolve difficult policy questions when they have come up.”

[Editor's note: A quote in this article has been updated to clarify the intended meaning behind Heidi Henkel's statement.]

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