An in-depth look into Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force
This year, hundreds of thousands of Coloradans signed petitions to create ballot initiatives that asked for more local control over the oil and gas development happening near their homes, schools and businesses as well as increased setbacks. Then came the now infamous offer of support followed by the grand compromise aka the “let’s use my anti-fracking ballot measures instead of your already existing ones” from Rep. Jared Polis, who authored and funded his own initiatives so he had the power to rescind them at the last hour, supposedly in exchange for a task force on oil and gas appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper, along with a few other nearly meaningless concessions.
Instead of letting the people have a voice with the initiatives at the ballot box, the “compromise” — made between one known supporter of the oil and gas industry and one who seems increasingly to lean that way — called for the creation of a task force that would draw from every side of the fracking issue in an effort to find common ground and in theory create legislative suggestions.
“This is one of the most important issues I’ve ever worked on,” Hickenlooper said during the news conference announcing the task force. “We have two self-interests in conflict, and I think most of us would say both of them have good arguments on their side, so then the challenge becomes how do we sit down and work through to mitigate the conflict as much as possible?”
Hickenlooper has described how there was a “communal sigh of relief, when we negotiated this commission.”
“We certainly don’t want it on a ballot initiative where no matter what happens the state loses tremendously,” Hickenlooper told the audience during a debate with his gubernatorial challenger, Bob Beauprez, in Grand Junction. “Look at the level of risk on that.”
On Aug. 4, Hickenlooper announced the members of his task force intended to step in and be the voice of the people and industry when oil and gas development occurs near homes, schools, businesses and recreational areas. Yes, that was a “when,” not an “if.”
As for Polis, on Aug. 4 he reacted to the creation of the task force by saying, “Today’s announcement is a victory for the people of Colorado and the movement to enact sensible fracking regulations. For the first time, citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, home values, clean water and air quality. I am pleased that we were able to come together, and today’s agreement is meaningful progress toward sensible fracking regulations.”
That would be great if it were true. It appears that now that the taskforce members have been announced, Polis’ optimism is as misplaced as the trust of the citizens in his ballot measures. A quick look at Hickenlooper’s task force participants should dispel any notion that this latest compromise is anything more than just the latest political attempt to allow the oil and gas industry to carry on its business as usual in Colorado.
The group is stacked with people whose stances range from “our communities deserve a little protection from the wells in their back yards, so let’s do a better job of capturing methane from oil and gas wells” to an oil and gas executive who has used a glass of fracking fluid to toast the process as the greatest invention of all time. And the majority of the task force, 12 appointees, are financial contributors to the Democratic Party.
Not one of the members of the task force, based on Boulder Weekly’s research, is an advocate for a ban or moratorium on fracking — even though that’s exactly what citizens in communities up and down the Front Range have been asking for by way of their votes and what a coalition of almost 300 organizations from across the country, Americans Against Fracking, is calling for.
“Anyone who has ever negotiated, whether it’s for a used car or something as important as this, knows if your position isn’t represented at the table, you can be certain that it’s not going to be a possibility in one of the outcomes,” says Sam Schabacker, Western Region director for Food and Water Watch, which organized the coalition.
The work of this task force will provide an alternative to ballot initiatives that, if successful, would have regulated the oil and gas industry through the rigidity of Constitutional amendments and posed a significant threat to Colorado’s economy,” Hickenlooper said in the Aug. 4 press release. “This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives and citizens who can advise the legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward.”
“People ask me, ‘Who’s gonna pick ’em?’ I am. … The buck stops here and I guarantee you we’re going to have everybody pissed off again,” Hickenlooper said at an Aug. 8 roundtable on fracking with South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce in Centennial, according to Colorado Community Media. “The one criteria is that everyone who is going to be on that list is someone who believes we can get to a yes [on a compromise].”
In other words, not one person opposed to oil and gas drilling or fracking in their communities will be on the taskforce. Barring some surprises, it is a taskforce built to reaffirm the status quo.
Let’s start with the industry representatives on the panel.
• Task force co-chair Randy Cleveland is a former ExxonMobil executive who is now president of XTO Energy, Inc.
At the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Meeting and Business Summit in August, Cleveland called New York and Pennsylvania’s controversial Marcellus Shale a treasure “with generational implications for decades to come.”
“Shale gas is transforming the global energy landscape,” he said.
Cleveland has not made any contributions to Colorado races. He’s joined by five additional representatives from the industry, many of whom have a different story when it comes to their campaign contributions.
• Peter Dea, president and CEO of Cirque Resources LP, once raised a glass with a cocktail of Halliburton’s “CleanStim” fracking fluid to “one of the greatest technology advancements of all times, and that’s the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing combined with the noble cause that all of you pursue each and every day to bring energy independence, security and real jobs to America while providing an unprecedented high quality of life for all Americans, so please join me in a toast to the freedom that all of you in hydraulic fracturing bring to America.”
In addition to being head of his own company, Dea is on the board of Encana. Cirque Resources, a private oil and gas company, focuses on “unconventional resource plays, primarily in the Rocky Mountain region,” according to the Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States, and has leased more than 600,000 acres in “emerging exploration plays.”
“Peter stirs the imagination of thought leaders across the political spectrum with compelling reasons to see natural gas as national treasure, capable of helping our nation meet its most pressing economic, environmental and energy security priorities,” said Marc W. Smith, executive director of Independent Petroleum Association of the Mountain States, in a news release.
He’s also a member of the Democratic pro-business organization Colorado Forum, which supports a “balanced energy policy” that includes continuing to pursue drilling and production opportunities in oil and gas, while safeguarding the environment and communities, and says that the rules and regulations developed to date will “allow the industry to move forward in a safe and economically viable way.”
Dea is a big time financial supporter of the Democratic Party and maxed out his donations to Hickenlooper for Colorado for 2010 and 2012.
• Also representing industry stakeholders are Brad Holly, vice president of operations for the Rocky Mountain Region for Anadarko.
Anadarko has invested in wells, processing plants and ownership stakes in pipelines in the Denver-Julesberg Basin of northeast Colorado and portions of Wyoming and Nebraska. Holly told the Denver Business Journal in 2013 that Anadarko had plans to invest about $1.7 billion in the basin, which gets almost half of the company’s capital investments and delivers almost half of its production. He also said that voters in a handful of cities in the area that were voting to delay or ban fracking were “a big area of concern for us.”
The company still has more than 4,000 wells to drill in the Denver-Julesburg, at a pace of 300 a year.
“We’re still in the first quarter of the game,” Holly told the Denver Business Journal.
• Dan Kelly, vice president of the Wattenberg Business Unit for Noble Energy told The Denver Post that Noble plans to spend $10 billion in the Denver-Julesburg Basin in the coming years, expecting decades of activity. Noble has identified 9,500 locations where it wants to drill, according to the Denver Business Journal report on comments made during the Platts Rockies Oil and Gas Conference in Denver in 2013. By 2016 or 2017, Kelly said at the conference, Noble hopes to be drilling 500 wells a year.
“The Niobrara is really beginning to show and compare with some of the top resource plays in the nation and we’re excited to have a premier position in the play,” he said at the conference.
Anadarko and Noble have plans that would see them drilling for almost two decades. To protect those plans, Anadarko and Noble together launched Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), a bi-partisan group with an “outreach mission of building awareness regarding the importance of fracking and its continued role in responsible oil and natural gas development in Colorado.” CRED pays for the advertising supplement labeled as the energy and environment section in The Denver Post and for many of the pro-fracking commercials that now constantly inundate our living rooms.
• Also on the task force is Scot Woodall, president and CEO of Bill Barrett Corporation, a Denver-based oil and gas company. Bill Barrett Corp. is also heartily committed to developing northeastern Colorado’s mineral resources. The Denver Business Journal reported on Sept. 16 that Woodall’s company sold $757 million in assets in the Piceance Basin in western Colorado and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for a land-swap that “boosted the company’s position” in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. The result will be that 70 percent of the company’s production will comes from the Denver-Julesburg Basin and Utah’s Uinta Basin, which has been reported to leak as much as 10 percent of the field’s total gas production. Colorado is, as one board member put it, their “core position.”
• Perry Pearce, manager of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Region for ConocoPhillips, was also named to the task force. Pearce, Holly and Woodall have all donated to Colorado Concern, and Pearce is a member of that organization. Colorado Concern’s top five issues are focused on job growth strategies, protecting tax credits and sales tax exemptions, addressing issues in current construction that limits “for sale” multi-family building, ensuring regulation and enforcement of Amendment 64, and transparency and fiscal solvency in the Public Employees’ Retirment Association. Eighty-two percent of Colorado Concern members do not support local government’s efforts to add additional regulations to industry.
As for taskforce appointees who would appear to be less enthusiastic about oil and gas production than the industry insiders, it appears that the willingness to compromise is their main area in common.
• Take Sara Barwinski, a member of Weld Air and Water, a community group in the county with the most wells in the state that was organized around opposition to oil and gas development. She testified at a Greeley planning commission meeting that the proposal to add more wells at a site near a residential neighborhood, within 500 feet from her own home, in fact, and adjacent to a high school — putting 32 wells in a half-mile radius — was just too much.
“This isn’t about being for or against oil and gas,” she told The Independent. “There’s already drilling going on here. There are six vertical wells on the site… But there’s also a school, a running track, houses, apartments. It’s a beautiful area. There’s a wetlands adjacent, a marsh that’s a bird habitat. There’s a hawk’s nest. I’m just asking for balance.”
Barwinski, a long time policy analyst in Missouri with a master’s in social work who had taught courses on legislative and regulatory processes and community development, planning and organizing at universities, remains hopeful.
“I believe that dialogue can happen, that there are good people in oil and gas who are trying to make the industry better and that most public elected officials serve because they believe in the common good,” she wrote in a Greeley Tribune op-ed. “Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) admit that we don’t know what is safe or not and we need further study about the health impacts of oil and gas toxic emissions.”
She got that dialogue when Weld Air and Water requested that the state health department and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission send in a third party consultant to meet with them and with Synergy, the oil company proposing the expansion. The Greeley Tribune reported that everyone walked away happy, having discussed monthly infrared testing, water sampling and retrofitting existing wells, even getting industry funds for studies on the health effects of living near drilling activity.
• Rancher and former Fort Lewis College sociology professor, Jim Fitzgerald is also on the task force. He’s donated to and endorsed the campaign of Gwen Lachelt, the La Plata County Commissioner who is also co-chair of the task force.
The resident of Bayfield may be one of the appointees most concerned about the impacts of drilling and fracking. He has a video testimonial on the website for Earthworks, a nonprofit organization that works to protect communities and the environment from the negative affects of mineral and energy development. Earthworks was founded by Lachelt.
In the video, he describes nearby residents whose homes had to be evacuated, a home that blew up from methane, destroyed trees and vegetation, tap water running at 160 degrees because fracking had pushed a hot springs into a drinking well.
“The energy companies still don’t even admit that they cause these problems. Even though they bought the people out, took the houses down, paid them everything, got them out as fast as they could, they made agreements with people where they’re not allowed to say how much money they got for the destruction they’ve caused, so people don’t really notice what the drilling has caused just the normal life of people,” Fitzgerald says in the video.
But his willingness to believe that oil and gas can be regulated into acceptability may have been on display in an op-ed published in The Durango Herald April 3, 2011, bylined to both him and his wife, Terry. The piece describes how they’d welcomed the overhaul of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2007 so that it came closer to representing the areas affected by drilling, including public health, the environment, surface owners and the industry. Fitzgerald was writing to object to a bill that proposed increasing oil and gas industry representation on the COGCC from three to five members.
“It hasn’t been a perfect agency, and we’ve disagreed with some decisions. But it’s a far cry from the old days, when the public distrust of the then-biased commission fueled constant conflict,” the Fitzgeralds write. While the old commission members were reluctant to come to La Plata County, the new commission invites public participation on new rules.
“The new rules require the industry to consider threats to human health and wildlife when applying for a drilling permit. The regulations establish protection zones around streams in watersheds that provide drinking water, require companies to tell state and emergency responders what chemicals they use and allow state health and wildlife officials to formally consult on oil and gas development applications,” they write. “These are rules that should have been in place when the drilling boom hit southwest Colorado in the late 1980s. They represent critical steps toward identifying threats to our public health from nearby gas activity.”
He’s also spoken in favor of reinstating a rule in La Plata County that would prohibit oil and gas wells in subdivisions with lots smaller than 10 acres. Presumably this means that drilling in subdivisions where lots have more acres should be allowable.
Fitgerald lives in a 380-acre ranch and has also been outspoken regarding water issues tied to drilling.
• Also coming down on the side of environmental regulations in the face of inevitable oil and gas development is the Western Resource Advocates and their president, Jon Goldin-Dubois. A statement from Western Resource Advocates announcing Goldin-Dubois’ appointment to the task force says, “As oil and gas drilling, including fracking, continues to expand across the state, the need to address the health and safety concerns of citizens has also expanded. Work of the Task Force will include helping local governments and communities find solutions to outstanding conflicts and greater protections while allowing for development of oil and natural gas, a key fuel in moving the state away from coal pollution and toward a cleaner energy future.”
It appears that Goldin-Dubois’ has adopted the Democratic Party line on natural gas, which is that it is a bridge fuel that will stop the use of coal.
• Like Goldin-Dubois, Kent Peppler, a farmer and president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, comes from an organization that has made its position on fracking and oil and gas development clear. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Policy 2014 states that “Whereas, we recognize that our national energy needs cannot be met without fossil fuels, and we support sensible, proven development of fossil fuels, including natural gas, as part of our energy portfolio for the immediate future. Fracking will help us reach energy independence. Rural areas will prosper when the labor needs generate local jobs and new wages impact the local economy.”
Individually, Peppler has called for weaning off fossil fuels and increasing renewable alternative fuels, mentioning ethanol and fuels made from biomass, algae and trash in an op-ed published in The Denver Post.
He has also discussed leaving some of his corn fields fallow because he couldn’t afford to irrigate them — oil and gas companies having driven the price of water too high. In a 2013 story, the Associated Press reported Peppler saying he used to pay $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water, but city water auctions wer seeing prices as high was $1,200 to $2,900 per acre foot. The City of Greeley sold 1,575 acre-feet of water in 2012 to companies that supply fracking, making about $4.1 million, compared to the $396,000 made in sales of 100 times that much water to farmers.
Though it supports fracking as a necessary measure for energy independence, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents 22,000 family farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, has expressed concern over the water used in oil shale development, saying it is perhaps the biggest threat to families and communities from oil shale development.
Peppler has given more than $6,000 to Democratic candidates and causes over the years, and gave the maximum allowed donation to Hickenlooper in 2013.
• The other co-chair of the task force is La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who sounds more ready to compromise than one would expect from “a fire-breathing, anti-fracking activist” as she has been called by a right-wing blog.
At Earthworks, which she founded, she worked on La Plata’s oil and gas regulations, built a statewide coalition to pass legislation that offers new protections for public health, water and air quality, worked on New Mexico Surface Owner’s Protection Act, saw the Valle Vidal in New Mexico protected from mineral extraction by legislation signed by President Bush in 2006, and hosted an oil and gas development tour with 11 Canadian First Nation Chiefs and members of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and ranchers from Wyoming and Montana.
Her campaign for county commissioner was endorsed by Jim Fitzgerald and his wife, Terry. Their endorsement of Lachelt declares, “She is thoughtful, perceptive, and passionate about justice and fairness. … She is capable of leading us out of the dark icy polar night in which this county is currently enshrouded.”
Lachelt’s platform for county commissioner includes talk about gas wells — focused on methane seepage, and that 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in La Plata County come from gas wells, facilities and methane seepage from a coal formation outcrop. She cites a Cornell University study that cautions that “the emissions caused during drilling, fracking and through faulty valves and leaking pipelines may be worse for the climate than coal — and call for rigorous monitoring and oversight by the responsible government agencies.”
The industry has technology to capture that methane — money in the bank for them, and a win for public health.
Earthworks is also currently running a campaign to stop drillers in the oil and gas industry from flaring and venting methane, or simply allowing it to leak.
It appears that her activism, like others on the task force, is aimed at improving regulatory oversight and leak capture rather than preventing drilling activity in communities.
• Appointee Bruce Rau falls some where in the middle. The organization for which he is vice president and chair, the Colorado Association of Home Builders, has opposed fracking as anti-business. When the Colorado Association of Home Builders moved to support the governor in giving cities and counties more control over oil and gas drilling, six of the association’s board members and its lobbying team quit, saying the measures would impede development. Those measures would have increased regulations on noise and setbacks, but not allowed a ban.
Rau also served on the advisory committee for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, which endorses natural gas as a bridge fuel.
The next batch of appointees come from the territory of the local and state government leaders and elected officials selected for the task force. They fall somewhere in between the centrist views of those activists who would like to collaborate with industry to craft regulations to offer their communities some modicum of protection, and the frack-fluid toasting extremism of industry appointees.
• Current Weld County Clerk and Recorder Steve Moreno has told The Coloradoan he’s a “strong supporter of the oil and gas industry.”
Moreno is running for county commissioner, now that he’s been term-limited out of the Clerk and Recorder’s office. In a candidate Q&A run by The Greeley Tribune in June, he was asked, “In your opinion, what must be done to ensure development is safe and does not affect quality of life for Weld residents?” and replied, “it will be important to partner not only with the oil and gas industry, but municipalities within Weld to ensure a high quality of life, especially as the county grows.”
Water and traffic will continue to be “hot-button” issues, he said, but reiterated, “I will always be an advocate for the industry, as long as we have the promise that they will be doing things in a responsible way.”
• Pat Quinn, former mayor of Broomfield and now task force appointee, was in office during the election season that saw Broomfield’s ban come from citizens rather than City Council. While members of the Broomfield City Council were crafting a new set of oil and gas rules, the voters took up the issue and narrowly approved a five-year ban on fracking. Council members had leaned away from pursing a moratorium and toward updating oil and gas policies and finding ways to increase safety. Quinn told the Daily Camera that he hoped any new standards would help the city and county foster relationships with oil and gas operators willing to follow best practices and meet those high standards.
While citizens were campaigning for that ban, the Broomfield City Council approved 21 new wells in Broomfield County. Quinn then told Fox TV that they had no grounds not to approve the applications.
“The concerns of air quality, water quality, you know, the location of the rigs. In each one of those cases, we have a standard greater than what Colorado requires. So we couldn’t deny the application,” he said.
• The next Hickenlooper choice, former state Representative and Speaker of the House Russ George, might be called the man who gave the Roan Plateau away. He was executive director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, one of a string of governor appointments by former governors and now pro-fracking spokesmen Bill Owens and Bill Ritter that has included the Colorado Department of Transportation, and served as the chairman of the Colorado’s Roadless Area Review Task Force. That task force was created by a bill sponsored by state Sen. Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction) (who helped author the pro-natural-gas Clean Air, Clean Jobs Bill) and State Sen. Jim Isgar (D-Hesperus), which was created to help decide how to manage areas of land designated by Clinton for protections under a roadless rule that was immediately suspended by the Bush administration, such as western Colorado’s Roan Plateau.
The task force eventually settled on a compromise — most of the 4.4 million acres would remain protected, with exceptions made for ski areas and wildfire-prevention projects. When leases were issued while the task force was still underway, George was asked to push the governor for interim protections, but said the task force did not have the authority.
“We got it as good as we could,” George told The Denver Post in 2006. “It’s all about balance.”
George’s background gives him experience that may inform what he brings to the task force. But there are also members who appear to simply have been deeply ensconced in the Democratic Party.
• Bernie Buescher, former Colorado Secretary of State, is a time-tested loyal to the Democratic party in Colorado, having donated thousands to Democratic campaigns over the years, including Hickenlooper’s campaigns in 2010 and the current one. He’s also taken donations from Colorado Democratic Party big spenders Polis and Pat Stryker, who contributed to his campaigns when he was running for the seat he held in the Colorado State House of Representatives from 2004 to 2008, and then for Secretary of State in 2010, a position he had been appointed to by former Governor Bill Ritter. He lost that race to Scott Gessler.
• The only task force representative speaking up for the interest of public health is Elbra Wedgeworth, chief government and community relations officer for Denver Health. Wedgeworth isn’t a doctor of any kind, she’s more a Democratic darling of the local scene, a former president of the Denver City Council and credited as instrumental in bringing the Democratic National Convention to Denver. She served as president/chair of the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee. Hickenlooper also served on that committee.
She is one of 100 business community members who signed on to support the governor’s reelection bid as Hickenlooper seeks to use the state’s economic recovery to fuel his campaign. She’s already maxed out her donations to Hickenlooper for this campaign cycle.
Wedgeworth is also co-chairing the group “Women for Udall,” founded to keep women’s issues at the forefront of this year’s senate race, with Sen. Mark Udall’s wife, Maggie Fox, and former state Sen. Paula Sandoval. Udall is one of the leading proponents of natural gas exports in the senate and has touted his desire to export Colorado natural gas overseas as an economic windfall for the state.
• Another appointee is Rebecca Love Kourlis, a retired justice of the Colorado Supreme Court and executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. It’s unclear what she knows about oil and gas, but she is well versed in water. She served as a water judge, and advocates for more flexibility in water law as a way to preserve irrigated agriculture in Colorado.
“One of the challenges is to find a way to integrate the state engineer and water court into a framework that permits flexibility,” Kourlis said during a 2013 workshop on agricultural water hosted by Colorado Ag Water Alliance and the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, according to The Pueblo Chieftain. Kourlis has also described the challenges of keeping water on farms when selling to cities (or, and this went unsaid, the oil and gas industry) may look so appealing.
She has also co-chaired an advisory panel that recommends federal judicial candidates to Udall and Sen. Michael Bennet.
The former judge has never given to any political candidate, and her only political tie seems to be a familial one: Her father is former Republican Colorado Gov. John A. Love.
Two lawyers who have consulted with organizations or counties on their oil and gas regulations were also chosen for the task force.
• Matt Sura worked with a citizen coalition that included Western Colorado Congress (of which he was previously the director), Western Slope Conservation Center, Citizens for Clean Air, Weld Air and Water and Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley in pushing for the air quality rules adopted by the Air Quality Control Commission in February.
“This is a victory for everyone, for the people in the room — the industry representatives and the environmentalists — but also for the activists in the communities across the state,” he told The Colorado Independent following adoption of the new rules. “I think this demonstrates that there’s a real role for the grassroots in these kinds of proceedings, which affect everyday life.”
In response to complaints that any benefits to air quality gained by reducing the leaks at a well will be offset by the increased number of wells companies can drill, Sura told The Colorado Independent, “We’ll look at the implementation plan for the rules and in two years we’ll be talking about it again. We’ll see how we’ve done.”
As with others in this category, the groups that Sura has worked with have stated goals to try to get stronger regulations on oil and gas, such as 1,000-foot setbacks and more inspections, rather than stopping its extraction in some instances outright.
• Jeff Robbins, an attorney with Goldman Robbins and Nicholson, has worked as outside council on oil and gas issues for Boulder County. He told county commissioners in June 2013 that Colorado law wouldn’t allow Boulder County voters to put a ban on oil and gas drilling on the ballot, and nor could county commissioner’s propose that issue for the ballot. The commissioners then asked staff to help in crafting a plan to allow for phased oil and gas development in Boulder County once the moratorium expired in June of that year. Then, citing a changing regulatory environment and the need for additional health and safety studies on air and water quality, while also mentioning the more than 1,100 comments received just in the previous week, all but a dozen or so of which were against lifting the moratorium, commissioners voted to extend the temporary moratorium for 18 months, until Jan. 1, 2015. The proposal for a phased plan was tabled indefinitely andstaff were instructed to work on developing an inspection and implementation plan for oil and gas applications.
Robbins’ law firm also represents surface owners in conflicts with oil and gas companies. His position seems to indicate that preventing drilling is something that only the state has jurisdiction over, placing him among those who see drilling as inevitable and citizens should work only to regulate it.
• Former Boulder Mayor and County Commissioner Will Toor was also appointed to the task force.
In December 2012, Toor wrote to Boulder Weekly columnist Dave Anderson to share his perspective on the oil and gas drilling issue (this was amid a series of bumps in the county-wide fracking moratorium).
“Why doesn’t the county just ban fracking? Under Colorado law, counties have only the legal authority that has been delegated to them by the state legislature,” Toor wrote. “Under current state law, Boulder County simply does not have the legal ability to ban fracking. However much we may sometimes want to, we can’t simply wish state law away. If we were to enact a ban, the courts would almost certainly overturn the ban — and we would then be obligated to process drilling applications under the existing 20-year-old county oil and gas regulations, with none of the additional protection that new regulations could provide.”
He goes on to say that he supports authority for local governments, signed the letter to Hickenlooper asking him to drop the lawsuit against Longmont for its fracking ban, and approached the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to push for statewide rules on setbacks and water quality that, for local governments, would serve as “a floor, not a ceiling.”
It’s not that the county’s position hinged on a fear of being sued, he said, as much as the county wanted to be in a position of having a hope of winning if sued. The county was crafting new regulations to protect air and water quality, set a maximum distance from other land users, and take baseline data on air quality before drilling was allowed to advance over the county.
“It does no one in Boulder County any good to draft legally indefensible regulations and hand another legal win to industry over local government,” he wrote. That statement probably summarizes the view he’ll bring to the task force.
The willingness to compromise, to regulate and continue to use a supposed “bridge fuel” that even some task force members admit is responsible for 80 percent of the emissions in their county and may be as destructive to the planet as burning coal runs insidiously high in our government at all levels.
President Obama has touted domestic gas production as “safe, cheap power” that can help reduce carbon emissions. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has “close industry ties” and claims he has “not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater” and “the issues in terms of the environmental footprint of hydraulic fracturing are manageable.” His predecessor, Steven Chu, told the crowd at a conference put on by America’s Natural Gas Alliance that choosing between natural gas and the environment is a “false choice,” according to The Columbus Dispatch, adding “This is something you can do in a safe way.”
He attributed the problems with fracking to fixable errors.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, has fracked wells herself. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy has said, “There’s nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can’t accomplish.”
On Sept. 16, Americans Against Fracking, a national coalition organized by Food and Water Watch, released the report “The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking.” It’s a follow-up on a previous report that also called for a ban on fracking to include 150 additional studies conducted since that 2011 report that add to the case that fracking leads to water and air pollution, earthquakes and climate change. The report stacks together studies that show fracking leads to forest fragmentation; competition over water resources; massive amounts of toxic and radioactive waste; waste disposal practices that can trigger earthquakes; spills, accidents and leaks that put waterways at risk; pollutants that compromise air quality; explosive hazards in homes; increased potential for contaminants to reach aquifers; climate change; and health issues, damaged roads and decreased property values fpr communities.
Just a few highlights: a report by Ceres that found 39 percent of gas wells, which can require about 5 million gallons of water to drill and frack, were in regions with high water stress and 9 percent in regions with extremely high water stress, meaning most, or almost all, of the water resources were being withdrawn. Industry construction projects increase sediment in rivers. Water quality is threatened by the use of oil and gas industry wastes, which often contain salts, to de-ice roads. Underground blowouts may happen at a much greater frequency than we can know — because their effects are hidden underground. Sediment near water treatment plants that accept oil and gas industry wastes was found to contain radiation 200 times background level. When water utilities disinfect river water contaminated with oil and gas, the chloride and bromide used can have chemical reactions with fracking wastewater that form byproducts linked to cancer and birth defects. A significant fraction of spills in Colorado have contaminated shallow aquifers.
“There’s no way to effectively and safely regulate this dangerous practice,” says Sam Schabacker, with Food and Water Watch. “It’s too dangerous and the impacts are so egregious that we believe the only advisable, practical and reasonable thing to do is to call for a ban on fracking. … We don’t believe fracking has any place in our energy future.”
The governor’s task force doesn’t represent that view, though many Coloradans have expressed the view that fracking is unsafe and local communities should have an ability to control it.
“That’s a huge voice and constituency that’s essentially being disenfranchised with this process, so I think we should really question the credibility of this taskforce and whether it’s really representative,” Schabacker says. “The outcome is a foregone conclusion. There’s not going to be anyone there fighting for true protections to safeguard our health, safety and property from fracking. There are only going to be discussions around how and to what extent fracking should go forward in Colorado.”
The Coloradans in who have been involved in the efforts to regulate fracking can’t be ignored, and won’t just go away.
“I really believe we’re just beginning to see the power of the anti-fracking movement,” Schabacker says. “Folks that feel very much betrayed by the deal that was cut between Congressman Polis and Governor Hickenlooper that created this task force see right through the task force and the appointments and realize that their interests are not represented here, and that they’re going to have to seek recourse in other ways.”
In the end, Coloradans’ right to vote on this critical issue was traded for nothing. That may not be true. It is more likely that Colorado’s right to vote on fracking was traded for no better reason than party politics in exchange for not offending major funders. Stay tuned.