Failure to extend drilling moratorium sparks talk of recall election for commissioners


If the emails crossing my screen these days are to be believed, then last week’s vote by the Boulder County commissioners to allow the county’s moratorium on oil and gas drilling to expire is shaping up to be the Lexington/Concord of the great fracking showdown.

On Tuesday, May 21, Commissioners Cindy Domenico, Deb Gardner and Elise Jones took a vote on whether the county’s current drilling moratorium should be extended. Elise Jones put up a good fight to save the county from the coming wave of contamination, but in the end, Domenico and Gardner voted to let the moratorium expire on June 10. As a result, many in the anti-drilling and anti-fracking camp would like to see Domenico’s and Gardner’s careers as elected officials come to an end as well.

Not only did the pair vote to let the moratorium end, they also had no interest in putting forward a ballot issue in November that would allow Boulder County residents to decide their own fate when it comes to drilling and fracking. This appears to have left the anti-fracking crowd with few options, aside from trying to initiate a recall effort against Domenico and Gardner. It is an option that is expected to be discussed in upcoming meetings of the various anti-fracking groups around the county.

So what are the chances that such a recall effort could be successful? Well, what are the chances that Longmont could ever pass a fracking ban? In the current environment, it would be unwise to take such recall talk lightly.

So why was failing to extend the moratorium viewed as the final straw for so many county residents? The answer is pretty simple, because the very future of Boulder County as we have known it is at stake. This is not an exaggeration. Here is what Domenico and Gardner have now voted to allow, for no other reason than because they fear being sued and/or believe that the county is not in a position to challenge the state’s claim that it alone has the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry.

It is estimated that 1,800 new wells will be drilled on our open lands, in our neighborhoods and backyards. That’s nearly six times as many wells as there are currently producing in the county. Aside from Boulder County’s beautiful landscape being transformed into a Weld-County-esque industrial wasteland, our air quality is going to take a huge hit. Just venting the tanks on these new wells will add an estimated 3.6 million pounds of hydrocarbon contamination into our air, and that doesn’t even take into consideration gas contaminants being burned off, flared or leaked.

And make no mistake about it, the wells will leak. The industry’s own literature and estimates tell us that we can expect around 126 of the new wells to leak gas contaminants as soon as they are drilled, while over a 15-year period, we can expect that approximately 1,080 of the wells, 60 percent, will have developed a gas leak at some point. Some will leak to the surface, adding to the ground-level ozone as well as global warming, while other wells will simply leak gas into non-gas-bearing formations, some of which may contain groundwater.

To drill and frack those 1,800 wells will require between 4 million and 10 million truck trips over our county roads, depending on how many times each well is fracked over its life. The commissioners did vote to charge the oil companies a fee for road damage caused by the trucks, but what about our air quality losses from those trucks? The EPA’s formula for calculating truck contamination, based on 50-mile round trips in class VIIIa heavy trucks, estimates we will be breathing in 5.7 million to 14.2 million pounds of additional diesel exhaust contaminants as a result of oil and gas truck traffic.

Spills are also a concern. Based on the current rate of spills in Boulder County from the current 300-or-so producing wells and an examination of the spill rate in adjacent Weld County, we can estimate that when all the wells are drilled, we will experience approximately 27 spills of hydrocarbons and/or fracking fluids every year, with somewhere around 10 of those spills causing groundwater contamination.

Yes, our water will be affected, and it is no secret, despite the denials and misinformation being disseminated by the industry. Compare the following quotes from the industry’s own literature to the false assurances being made by oil and gas executives who keep telling us that the industry has never caused the contamination of our underground aquifers.

According to the August 2003 edition of Oilfield Review, a Schlumberger publication, “Many of today’s wells are at risk. Failure to isolate sources of hydrocarbon either early in the well-construction process or long after production begins has resulted in abnormally pressured casing strings and leaks of gas into zones that would otherwise not be gas-bearing. … Since the earliest gas wells, uncontrolled migration of hydrocarbons to the surface has challenged the oil and gas industry. … Continued demand for natural gas coupled with increasingly more difficult drilling environments has heightened operator awareness worldwide to the short- and long-term implications of poor zonal isolation.”

It will be difficult to prove which company causes what contamination in Boulder County’s groundwater, thanks to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency charged with both promoting the oil and gas industry and supposedly regulating it. That’s because the statewide water testing that is required before and after drilling to protect groundwater and expose those responsible for contaminating it won’t be required in Boulder County. In a bizarre move, the COGCC exempted the Wattenberg field, which lies under much of Weld, Larimer and Boulder counties, from the required testing.

Why? I’m sure that it didn’t have anything to do with the fact that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s choice to run the COGCC for the past few years, David Neslin, helped push the exemption through just before he stepped down from the regulatory agency to take a really great job at the law firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs, a firm that represents lots of oil and gas companies, including one of the Wattenberg’s largest oil and gas producers. And while I’ll assume it’s just a coincidence, it’s still bad news for Boulder County residents and their water.

What Domenico and Gardner apparently fail to realize is that victory for the county isn’t defined as beating the state’s claim that only the COGCC is authorized to regulate the oil and gas industry. Everyone understands that the state will sue Boulder County if it doesn’t cave in to Hickenlooper’s demands that his oil and gas pals be allowed to decimate any place they choose. We understand that we will be sued and quite likely lose in court down the road. That in and of itself is a victory.

The victory is in the delay. We need time for the science to catch up to the drilling when it comes to human health and the environment. We need five years, so that the demand for exporting gas overseas diminishes as other global players like China bring their shale gas online, as described in my “Hiding behind the flag” column last week.

One way or another, buying time could get us past the current gas boom, which will, in the not-too-distant future, implode of its own accord due to the low price of gas, lack of a domestic market and the fact that much of today’s shale gas drilling activity is being driven not by demand for gas, but rather by the demands of Wall Street investment bankers who require that publicly traded oil and gas companies continue to grow their reserves on candidate paper to inflate their stock values, making them desirable targets for mergers or acquisitions.

It’s a scam and a bubble. We just have to make sure the county hasn’t been permanently degraded before the whole thing runs its course and the drilling frenzy slows or stops completely.

Boulder County doesn’t need to fear being sued. Instead, it needs to have a quiver filled with delay tactics to tie up the drillers and the permit process in the courts as long as possible. And it is imperative that the quiver include a drilling moratorium, which should be extended continuously until the courts find a way to step in and stop it.

The anti-drilling and anti-fracking movement is changing tactics, and so is the industry. Those opposed to fracking are now moving towards more proactive action, including peaceful civil disobedience and political pressure, such as attempting to recall politicians like Domenico and Gardner, who are viewed as unwilling to stand up to the oil and gas industry.

The industry is turning up the heat as well. As reported by CNBC more than a year ago, the oil and gas industry is now treating the fight to frack our lands as something more similar to a war or occupation than a business decision. Consider these remarks made and recorded at a hydraulic fracturing industry conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston. The manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum, Matt Carmichael, told those gathered that he had a few helpful suggestions for them, including one that came compliments of the military. He told his fellow frackers, “Download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, because we are dealing with an insurgency. There’s a lot of good lessons in there, and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable.”

Similarly, Range Resources Communications Director Matt Pitzarella gave a talk on “overcoming stakeholder concerns” when it comes to fracking. His suggestion, “We have several former psy ops [psychological operations] folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments … having that understanding of psy ops in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”

I should point out that it is illegal for “psy ops” to be used on the American people. It is a powerful military tool designed strictly for screwing with the enemies of our nation
in a military setting, not for dealing with U.S. citizens opposed to
the actions of a private corporation, such as fracking.

By the time this is over, few in Boulder County will be left on the sidelines. Now is the time to educate ourselves and choose a side. Will we fight to preserve our and our children’s health, our clean air and water, our property values, and our long-held quality of life, or will we accept that we must allow all these things we cherish to be destroyed because a few politicians tell us we have no choice in the matter since the profits of a handful of companies are more important?

It would be nice if commissioners Domenico and Gardner would change their minds and help Elise Jones extend the moratorium on drilling in Boulder County. But if they won’t, I suspect that the citizens of this county will find a way to get Jones the second vote she needs to make it happen.

Time is running out, and the stakes are simply too high to not take whatever action is needed to keep the moratorium in place.


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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