On the morning of March 8, accompanied by a small group of activists, 23-year old Cullen Lobe, a journalism and environmental affairs student at Colorado State University, walked up to a bulldozer as it was excavating a well pad and oil and gas production facility site owned by Extraction Oil and Gas. The driver turned off the machine as Lobe stood in its path. Lobe spoke with the driver, explaining he held nothing against him personally but rather was protesting the massive oil and gas extraction location where he was working because of its close proximity to an elementary school.
“I’m here to protect the children,” Lobe told the worker.
The two talked briefly until the worker walked away to make a phone call. Lobe then locked himself to the hydraulic shaft of the bulldozer’s lift in peaceful protest of the project where numerous wells will be drilled and fracked just over 500 feet from the southern property line of Bella Romero Academy, a 4-8 grade school.
The Weld County Commissioners approved Extraction’s well pad and facility site, known as Vetting 15-H, near Bella Romero in June 2016. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) gave its approval in March 2017. When completed, the site will consist of 24 oil and gas wells along with a separate nearby location for dozens of wastewater tanks, separators and vapor recovery units. By most measures, and in the now-common vernacular, it will be a massive fracking operation. Extraction’s rationale — according to its COGCC location permit — for siting this industrial facility next to the elementary school includes its close proximity to irrigation ditches and the South Platte River, which it plans to utilize during the drilling process via a temporary water pipeline.
Extraction didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment on this story.
Soon after the COGCC’s approval — on behalf of the groups NAACP of Colorado, Sierra Club, Wall of Women, and Weld Air and Water — attorneys Tim Estep and Kevin Lynch of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law sued the COGCC for permitting Extraction’s well pad and facility site. The suit asks that the COGCC’s permitting of Extraction’s Vetting site be invalidated and reconsidered under the guidance of the lawsuit.
According to Lynch, the COGCC has a number of regulations in place governing oil and gas extraction that it likes to tout as the strongest in the country, even though other states like New York have banned fracking outright. Historically, the COGCC has viewed its oversight of the industry as only a responsibility to ensure that its regulations have been met, not to ensure public health or deny a permit on that basis, Lynch says.
Lynch adds the COGCC’s setback requirements were explicitly not set with the intention of addressing human health impacts associated with air emissions related to oil and gas development.
The lawsuit further alleges the COGCC approved the location because it, and oil and gas operators, generally experience the least amount of pushback when siting major oil and gas development in predominantly minority communities since these communities do not have the same resources as more affluent communities, which in turn sets a precedent for siting oil and gas extraction developments in similar communities in the future. Citing the Colorado Department of Education, the lawsuit states Bella Romero’s student population is 90 percent Latino or Hispanic, African American or other persons of color, while 87 percent of Bella Romero’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The lawsuit states the site was previously proposed at a different location near a charter school called Frontier Academy, but that this was “not ideal” because of its proximity to that school and playground even though the playground at Frontier is actually further away from the proposed oil and gas site than are the playground and ball fields at Bella Romero from the new Vetting site location. Nearly 75 percent of the population at Frontier Academy is Caucasian and only 20 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, according to the lawsuit.
Lynch says the position they’ve been advancing is that the COGCC has an independent duty to ensure, on a case-by-case basis, that any oil and gas development is consistent with the protection of public health, safety and welfare at that location.
But on April 10, the judge hearing the suit rejected a temporary restraining order that would have halted Extraction’s construction of its site near Bella Romero. The judge indicated he planned to rule in favor of the COGCC. Despite this order, the groups represented in the suit vowed to continue fighting the court’s decision to allow Extraction’s industrial operation to move forward next to Bella Romero.
Even without the new Vetting site, Extraction already operates well pads near Bella Romero, one being within 500 feet of the school’s northern property line where children walk to and from school and are picked up and dropped off by their parents each morning and afternoon. The COGCC’s online mapping system shows a directional wellbore from this existing site extending directly beneath the school. And approximately three-quarters of a mile east of the school, Extraction also operates another large extraction operation, with additional wells running beneath the Bella Romero property. Extraction operates another large well pad and facility approximately 2,200 feet further north of this latter site.
But Cullen Lobe and the aforementioned litigants aren’t the only ones protesting Extraction’s Vetting site in an attempt to protect the children of Bella Romero. In mid-February, nearly 40 people protested against Extraction outside the school, and another well-attended protest occurred there in late March.
Greeley-native Megan Meyer, a former student in environmental studies at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), has been part of some of the protests against the proposed Bella Romero operation. Meyer became aware of the project and its potential health impacts because her young cousin attended the school and she has family living in the area. Meyer’s involvement led to her founding UNC Earth Guardians and becoming the Frontline Fracking Coordinator for the group. She grew up in Greeley and says she’s been getting more and more frustrated with the oil and gas industry over time and wonders where they’re going to draw the line.
Many oil and gas industry workers don’t want Extraction’s fracking project by the school, Meyers says. “It’s not the workers’ fault,” she adds, “I get it, my husband worked in the industry too.” But she believes it’s at the risk of the worker’s health, adding many employed by the industry are only there because there aren’t other good paying jobs available for them.
Dr. Shirley Smithson, a Sierra Club member who is part of the suit against the COGCC and who has lived for 30 years in a house right next door to Bella Romero, originally moved to the countryside so she could spend more time riding her horse, which she did until Extraction closed off and leveled the field where she used to ride.
Smithson says when the drilling and production facility north of the school was going in she felt it under her house at night. “My bed would shake,” she says, adding, “You can hear it, bah-boom, bah-boom, bah-boom, constantly throughout the day.” Smithson adds that while the wells were being fracked she could see things spewing out of the site and her eyes burned. “I was coughing all the time,” she says.
And it’s not just activists voicing their opposition to the Bella Romero site. In early January, the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education, who are charged with protecting the students of Bella Romero, passed a resolution against Extraction’s fracking project near the school, proclaiming among other things that oil and gas wells have the potential to create health and safety hazards, including but not limited to fires, explosions and releases of potentially hazardous materials. The resolution requests that the approval of Extraction’s Vetting site be reconsidered by Weld County and the State of Colorado agencies involved in the permitting process. It also asks Extraction to relocate its fracking operations to a site greater than 2,000 feet away from any District 6 school should the COGCC and Weld County fail to respond.
Deirdre Pilch, Superintendent of Schools, who endorsed the resolution, remarked before its unanimous passage that although the school district enjoys a “tremendous relationship” with Extraction, “It’s just not OK to put a significant industrial site this close to a school.”
And although Pilch didn’t specify what she meant by a “tremendous relationship,” emails obtained via an open records request indicate some possibilities. Soon after the school board passed its resolution, Pilch wrote an email to Brian Cain, Extraction’s director of public affairs, and Blane Thingelstad, Extraction’s northern development manager, in which she states, “I certainly understand your frustration and even anger with the decision that our district Board of Education made last week regarding the opposition to the Vetting Wells.” Pilch continues that she appreciates all the support Extraction has given District 6, including their financial support for the district’s campaign committee for a Mill Levy increase. In September 2017, Extraction contributed $10,000 to the political committee campaigning for the increase, which is meant to benefit District 6.
According to Theresa Myers, Greeley-Evans School District communications director, Cain “voiced concern” that Extraction didn’t know the resolution would be on the board’s agenda. But voicing concern and anger appear to be different things.
Extraction has made its displeasure known to others aside from those within the school district. According to the Weld County Sheriff’s Office arrest report for Lobe and others, when Sergeant Scott Holmen of the Weld County Sheriff’s Department arrived on scene, his deputy handed over his phone and informed Sergeant Holmen he needed to speak to a responsible party with the oil and gas company. “I spoke to Eric, general counsel for Extraction Oil and Gas, who informed me that they own all the property we were currently standing on. He continued to inform me that all parties were trespassing and needed to be arrested immediately. He continued to yell his demands of my deputies until such time I ended the phone call,” according to the Sergeant Holmen’s narrative.
There are other ways in which money has also passed from Extraction to District 6. According to records provided by the school district via an open records request, since November 2014, Extraction has paid the district $1.24 million in the form of royalties on oil and gas production from leases covering mineral interests owned by the district beneath Bella Romero Academy itself. According to Myers, this money has gone into the district’s general fund. If Extraction’s Vetting site is built, Myers says, the district will receive additional royalties on its mineral leases.
Extraction also gave the district $5,000 in 2016 and 2017, for a combined $10,000 for two annual school year kickoff events. But according to Myers, Extraction has yet to commit their support for the 2018 event, which provides backpacks and school supplies to schoolchildren.
Undeterred by the school board’s resolution, Extraction appears to be moving forward with its Vetting fracking operation and production facility. In response in early March, the district began preparing an “enhanced evacuation plan” for Bella Romero in the event of a gas leak, fire or explosion, according to The Greeley Tribune. And according to Myers, as part of this enhanced evacuation plan, children would evacuate the school out the north side, which is opposite the Vetting site. Myers says the plan is in its draft stages and declined to provide a copy, adding it also accounts for evacuating Bella Romero Academy grades K-3, a school separate from the Bella Romero 4-8 location and a half mile away. Myers said the district hadn’t considered the possibility that the Extraction site just north of the school could also have an incident or even contribute to an incident related to the Vetting site, potentially adding complexity to the safe evacuation of the children.
Myers says the school has no current plans for action beyond the resolution as the district is waiting to see what happens with some of the outstanding issues, including the aforementioned lawsuit against the COGCC.
The school district’s concern for safety is hardly without reason. In late December 2017, an explosion and fire occurred at an Extraction fracking pad and facility site in nearby Windsor, sending a worker to the hospital and billowing a plume of smoke into the night sky. This site appears to have less than 20 wells and is 1,700 feet from an occupied structure compared to Extraction’s Vetting site, which has 24 wells planned and is sited approximately 1,300 feet from the classrooms of Bella Romero elementary school and just over 500 feet from the school’s southern property line. According to Extraction’s incident report, the explosion at its site in Windsor occurred during flowback operations, which are a byproduct of fracking.
And earlier last year in April, a severed gas line associated with an Anadarko Petroleum Corporation well in Firestone leaked into the nearby basement of a residential home, causing that home to explode, killing two men and seriously injuring a woman. And just months later, another Anadarko well exploded, killing one and injuring three others.
And as for a different kind of health impact, a study published at the end of March and conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found the lifetime cancer risk of those living within 500 feet of a well was eight times higher than the EPA’s upper level risk threshold. The researchers’ findings indicate state and federal regulatory policies may not be protective of health for populations living near oil and gas facilities.
And with regard to children, a study published in February led by the same researcher found that children aged 5–24 years diagnosed with the hematological cancer known as acute lymphocytic leukemia were three to four times as likely to live in areas with active oil and gas wells as were children diagnosed with non-hematologic cancers.
It is at the nexus of health concerns, racial discrimination and Extraction’s full-speed-ahead approach to its Vetting site that Cullen Lobe and his protest emerge.
As a result of his act of peaceful civil disobedience, Lobe was cited with second-degree trespassing and second-degree tampering with equipment associated with oil or gas gathering operations charges, both misdemeanors, for which he’ll appear in Weld County Court on May 8. Others who were in the area were also cited, including activists, a lawyer who was acting as a legal observer, and an independent journalist.
But the criminal charges are just the beginning of Lobe’s legal ordeal, for soon after his action Extraction filed a civil lawsuit against him and others for “nominal damages,” further requesting a judge grant a temporary restraining order barring Lobe and others from trespassing on Extraction’s Vetting site, “or any property owned by or in possession of Extraction, 7N, or their oil and gas industry affiliates.” 7N LLC is a subsidiary of Extraction. Other plaintiffs cited by the Weld County Sheriff’s Department at Lobe’s protest and consequently sued by Extraction include Brian Hedden, John Lamb, Jeremy Mack, Mary Elise Delffs, and John and Jane Does 1-8.
In the lawsuit, Extraction states it does not seek to impact Lobe’s or others’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but rather to prevent them from trespassing or interfering with its operations. But in an amended version of the complaint, a subtler aspect of Extraction’s argument appears. After asserting Lobe and others “style” themselves as environmental activists engaging in civil disobedience to oppose oil and gas extraction, Extraction again states it’s not attempting to impact their right to free speech, but in a footnote dropped from this point, Extraction notes that “even free speech rights are not absolute — speech can be curtailed or enjoined when it interferes with other’s exercise of their rights.”
Implicit in this statement is perhaps the crux of the issue: the distinction and supremacy of certain rights. Lobe and other community members considered it imperative to utilize their First Amendment right in order to give voice to under-privileged and under-served communities because nothing else appeared to be working. As a result, they have brought attention to what appears to be an act of environmental injustice. On the other hand, Extraction’s rights appear to be those of mineral rights, and therefore, corporate profits.
According to Lobe’s attorney, Jason Flores-Williams, Extraction’s suit against Lobe appears to be an intimidation tactic. And because Extraction has also named other individuals in the lawsuit, Flores-Williams says it appears Extraction is going after anyone who has tried to stand up and raise their voice against this massive industrial operation going in next to an elementary school, and that the real intent seems to be Extraction sending a message to the community, that “if you stand up against us or resist this or challenge this in any way then you too can be the subject of a lawsuit, and you too will have to defend yourself against a multi-billion dollar oil and gas corporation.”
Flores-Williams adds that in the mere act of filing the lawsuits against several individuals, Extraction is impinging upon the First Amendment rights of Lobe and of the community. Flores-Williams filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on April 11, and the case is set to be heard on May 18.
Understanding the significance of Lobe’s action at Bella Romero relative to American democracy suggests a look at his experience at Standing Rock. There, Lobe joined a massive protest event and camp comprised of diverse groups of people unified under the title of Water Protectors. Standing Rock was led by First Nations People, including representation from indigenous tribes from around the world who have been experiencing forms of genocide and injustice since Europeans began immigrating to the continent over 500 years ago. And although the pipeline the people were protesting was ultimately constructed, Standing Rock appears to have been successful in other ways.
At Standing Rock, protest, or the protection of water in the sense that water is life, was practiced as a spiritual act, but not in the sense some might think. Being a Water Protector at Standing Rock was to engage in a spiritual act of protest, spiritual in the sense that it was done for the sake of other, voiceless and vulnerable communities, including the air, earth, people and water.
And so Lobe’s protest alongside First Nations People became a peaceful and spiritual act on behalf of people different from him, which is akin to his action protecting the children of Bella Romero by protesting Extraction’s Vetting site. These peaceful and spiritual protests on behalf of those who have no voice or are otherwise vulnerable appear kindred with the First Amendment of the Constitution.
And as Lobe was locked to the bulldozer, alone and surrounded by police, he says his spirit sank, but then the children of Bella Romero started pouring out of the school for recess, lining the fence, and witnessing. “That was a very beautiful moment,” he says, “that made everything OK.”
Flores-Williams says such an expression of the First Amendment exists within the most Constitution-protected zone in America. “It is the sacred space of our democracy,” he says. And when the ability to raise your voice around issues of concern dies, Flores-Williams adds, democracy dies.
Flores-Williams also states that when people such as Lobe engage in peaceful civil disobedience where there are laws involved, they’re going to have to face some kind of culpability, but where that changes is where massive corporations decide to enter into the First Amendment arena to try to silence a community and intimidate people and shut down resistance. “That is the place where we stop and say, ‘This far — no further,’” Flores-Williams says.
“We are not going to live in an America where corporations believe that they can violate the First Amendment rights of a community with impunity,” the attorney asserts, which is why he says the case ties into the larger context of American democracy. If Extraction is allowed to go through with its lawsuit, Flores-Williams says, other fossil fuel corporations may see suing people engaging in peaceful protest as an effective way of neutralizing or suppressing opposition to their future fracking projects, such as the hundreds of wells and massive production facilities now proposed for Boulder County.
Flores-Williams asserts this must not be the emerging trend in our country. “They own enough already,” he says, “They’re not going to own the First Amendment.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fort Collins Courier last week.