Ballot Battle to Protect Communities from Fracking

Industry tricks, Prop 112 treats, and the full story and full truths.

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350 Colorado and Colorado Rising members on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol in Denver in October, 2018
Christian O'Rourke

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you’ve probably been exposed to a bombardment of oil and gas industry propaganda about Proposition 112. You may think that it’s an attempt to defund schools or wreck the Colorado economy. The ads have been purposely misleading and filled with false claims in an attempt to trick Coloradans into voting against their own best interests – so oil execs can maximize profits.

The truth is that Proposition #112 is a hard-fought grassroots measure to protect communities from the dangers of fracking by establishing 2,500-foot safety zones (aka setbacks) between new oil and gas operations and our kids’ schools, homes, water sources and playgrounds. This minimum safe distance aligns with both health studies and firefighter recommendations.

The measure’s road to the ballot box has been long and mired in corruption, dirty tricks, and the stink of oily money. The oil and gas industry amassed a $38 million war chest from companies like Anadarko and Extraction to launch a relentless propaganda ad blitz. As hundreds of volunteers worked to gather 172,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot, fake “protestors” were paid to harass and intimidate signature gatherers on over 100 occasions, and signature-gathering firms and individuals were paid to stop work. One firm mysteriously left the state with 15,000 signatures, which were returned only after a lawsuit was filed. Their employees went unpaid, and the campaign was left to pick up the pieces.

Despite industry efforts to undermine Proposition #112, the need for it is clear. Colorado is now one of the most fracked states in the nation. Over the past decade, new technologies resulted in a fracking boom that has collided with Colorado’s population explosion, with the result that new wells are increasingly close to homes, schools, and vulnerable areas such as drinking water sources.

Yet the industry has managed to remain exempt from local zoning—and even the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Permit requests spiked in 2018, with increasing numbers of operations targeting inhabited areas. There are currently no minimum setbacks from water sources, and fracking is allowed just 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from school buildings—which means drilling often occurs right next to playgrounds.

More than 1,300 peer-reviewed studies show clear links between fracking-related toxic emissions and negative health impacts, including increased risks of cancer, low birth-weight babies, birth defects, asthma, and other serious issues for people living less than 2,500 feet from drilling and fracking sites. Due to high methane leakage rates, fracking is proving worse for the global climate than burning coal. A single operation can also use 5-10 million gallons of precious freshwater. This water becomes so toxic that it must be taken out of the water cycle, but when injected deep into the earth, it can result in earthquakes and groundwater contamination.

Safety is another concern. Fracking operations cause accidental explosions, fires, and toxic spills. Over the past year and a half, Colorado has experienced 17 oil and gas fires and explosions. The tragic Firestone explosion that occurred when a nearby well flow line leaked methane gas into a home severely burned local teacher Erin Martinez and killed both her husband and brother; her child only survived by jumping from a second-floor window.  

Fracking companies’ safety records are abysmal, with insiders and whistle-blowers pointing to execs taking shortcuts and ignoring safety regulations to maximize their paychecks. The industry claims to care about protecting workers and jobs, but has 4-7 times the national average in worker deaths. They brag to investors about increasingly moving toward robots and automation. Their claims that Prop 112 will result in 200,000 jobs lost and a damaged economy are wild assertions, considering that there are fewer than 29,000 oil and gas jobs in the state. The industry accounts for just 1% of the state’s jobs and 1% of state revenue.

Fracking companies in the US are over $200 billion in debt, and in aggregate the industry has never had a year of positive operating cash flow. Reminiscent of the 2008 housing bubble, the companies are propped up by duped investors. It is a boom about to bust, with over 100 fracking companies already having filed for bankruptcy in the past three years.  Colorado communities will be left paying for the clean up of each of these toxic well sites as concrete cracks and steel corrodes in the coming years, further threatening our water, air and health.

State regulators and elected officials regularly capitulate to the influence of oil and gas money, rather than carrying out their duty to protect public health and safety. The State Legislature has failed to pass even the most modest attempts to increase safety zones between fracking and school playgrounds. The epitome of this erosion of democracy arose when five communities sought to protect themselves by passing locals bans and moratoria. In response, Governor Hickenlooper’s administration sued the five communities, and overturned their protective measures.

Hundreds of people have shown up to demand action to protect public health at hearings of the state’s regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). In a single year, over 1,100 complaints were filed concerning water contamination, people’s inability to sleep, work, or go outside due to sound, vibrations, and noxious odors, serious illnesses and even deaths. The COGCC ignores these complaints and permits every drilling request, even forced pooling whereby one neighbor agrees to drilling and everyone else is fracked against their wishes.

The commission has come under fire in the Martinez v. COGCC youth lawsuit, whereby the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that public health and safety must be prioritized over oil and gas interests. The COGCC appealed, and has not dropped its appeal despite intense opposition. Nineteen Colorado cities, counties and groups have signed an amicus brief in support of the Martinez vs. COGCC decision.

The overly-cozy relationship between the COGCC and the oil and gas industry is exemplified by the COGCC’s often cited analysis of 2500’ setbacks, which looked only at land surface area that would be off-limits to drilling and didn’t take into account the fact that the industry frequently horizontally drills 2 miles or more underground to access oil and gas far from surface drill sites. This misleading analysis led to public confusion that 2500’ setbacks would make the vast majority of oil and gas inaccessible when that is not the case. Once 2-mile horizontal drilling is taken into account, a Colorado School of Mines report showed that almost three times as much subsurface real estate for drilling or fracking is accessible. This results in 53% of nonfederal land subsurface and just 33.9% of total Colorado subsurface land being off limits with 2500’ setbacks to protect our neighborhoods. A leaked industry document shows that the industry knows that the vast majority of oil and gas will still be accessible, but they are calling Prop 112 a ban to make the public think it’s too extreme.

Recognizing that state regulators and legislators are failing to protect us, frontline community organizations and thousands of volunteers joined together to protect ourselves through Proposition #112, which has been now endorsed by over 100 Colorado groups, businesses, and community leaders. The final push to pass Proposition #112 is currently in full swing.

I encourage everyone who believes that our children’s health and safety must come first above greedy oil exec profits to vote YES on Proposition #112. Tell your neighbors and friends the truth and not to fall for fracking companies’ tricks.

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