Coloradans weigh fracking bans. A litmus test for oil and gas?

Residents of four Colorado towns will vote on fracking bans Tuesday. Oil and gas production is growing in the western states, and what happens in Colorado is being closely watched in other shale-rich states.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at a gas well outside Rifle, in western Colorado. Coloradans in four communities head to the polls Tuesday to vote on proposed moratoriums or bans on hydraulic fracturing.

Coloradans in four communities will vote Tuesday on whether to prohibit a controversial drilling technique that has been central to a boom in US energy production.

The oil and gas wells in and around the towns represent a fraction of the state's total production, and an even smaller slice of the total US oil and gas output. But the debate is highly symbolic, and it comes just months after massive floods spilled tens of thousands of gallons of oil and gas condensate in northwest Colorado. What happens in Colorado may serve as a litmus test for the oil and gas industry, as fracking continues to spread across the US.

“If we are successful in the campaign, we expect to pivot and move to a more statewide effort,” Russell Mendell, an organizer for Frack Free Colorado, an advocacy group, told The Wall Street Journal.

Residents of Boulder, Broomfield, and Fort Collins, Colo., will vote on five-year moratoriums on fracking, while voters in Lafayette, Colo., will vote on an outright ban. The four regions encompass about 141 active wells out of the state's total 51,398, Bloomberg reports. Last year, residents in Longmont, about 40 miles north of Denver, banned fracking, but that is currently being challenged in court by the oil and gas industry.

Located on the Niobrara shale, Colorado is home to as much as an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil.  Colorado's crude oil production has risen 64 percent since 2010 and marketed natural gas production rose 27 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

That trend is similar to what's happening across the Western states where horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and other advanced drilling techniques are unlocking oil and gas from the Niobarara, Anadarko, and Permian basins. Oklahoma and New Mexico have seen oil production rise 51 percent and 46 percent respectively during the same period. 

The growth has mobilized activists on both sides of the debate over hydraulic fracturing. Environmentalists and local groups raise concerns over fracking's heavy use of water and its potential for waste to contaminate local drinking sources. While natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, there are concerns over leaks of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

The risks of oil and gas extraction were on display in September when heavy rains flooded wells, ruptured pipes, and toppled storage containers, releasing about 43,000 gallons of oil and gas condensate.  

Supporters say the drilling technologies have evolved over decades to be safe and reliable methods for extracting oil and natural gas. Tapping Colorado's vast resources would help lower energy costs and provide the state with employment growth. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a statewide trade association, has spent over half a million dollars on a media campaign to stop the bans.

"[W]e are financially supporting the local groups who oppose the bans on behalf of the 100,000 Colorado families who have an enormous stake in the outcome of these ballot initiatives," Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Doug Flanders told the Denver Post. "These bans are not an energy plan."  

Vermont and New York are the only states with statewide bans on fracking. In September, California passed strict regulations on fracking but stopped short of banning the technique outright. 

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