The Polis/Hickenlooper fracking compromise; thanks, but no thanks


Remember the old comedy skit wherein a well-meaning fellow decides he wants to do a good deed by helping an elderly woman cross a busy street? He eventually hauls her kicking and screaming safely through the traffic to the other side only to have the old lady kick him right in the yarbles as she scolds him for dragging her back across a street she just spent an hour to cross in the other direction.

Apparently Congressman Jared Polis liked this routine so much he wants to reenact it at the state capital by way of Governor John Hickenlooper’s proposed special legislative session that could come as soon as June 8 and will aim to keep local control over oil and gas development off the ballot this fall.

I like what Polis has done on a lot of issues, most of them, in fact, but he’s come up short on fracking for a number of reasons I’ll get to shortly. So for his sake, let’s hope that the Congressman is wearing a cast-iron cup. Because if he successfully manages to drag a half million of his constituents kicking and screaming back across the fracking wasteland to the same place it took them two years of inspired grassroots activism and door-to-door democracy to get away from in the first place, he’s going to need it.

So here’s the backstory. The good people of Longmont, Lafayette, Boulder, Boulder County, Fort Collins and Broomfield have either banned or placed moratoriums on fracking in their communities because, frankly, the State of Colorado’s oil and gas regulations are an unenforceable joke designed to sound impressive while accomplishing virtually nothing to protect the environment and public health (See “America’s dirtiest secret” in BW’s March 13 issue). This is not an overstatement.

Because of various exemptions and special treatment for the oil and gas industry under federal environmental laws, state regulators in Colorado and across the nation have basically been neutered. Or as one Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) manager explained it to me, there has been a statute on the books in Colorado for 30 years or so that doesn’t allow the state to pass any statutes on oil and gas production waste so long as the federal government is still exempting all such waste from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s (RCRA’s) subtitle C. He went on to tell me that, as a result, all Colorado can really do is issue “policies and guidance” that have no real enforcement capacity, in other words, suggestions. When asked if the state could even fine a company that ignored its guidance and policies when it comes to production waste, he said “No, not unless you could prove the public had been put in danger, and that’s nearly impossible.”

And so with this lack of enforcement backdrop, local communities decided to do what the state wouldn’t and couldn’t: protect themselves from oil and gas industry contamination to their air, land and groundwater by prohibiting fracking, which tends to make all oil and gas development within city limits pretty much uneconomic.

So Hickenlooper has commanded the state to join his oil company pals and industry trade groups in suing local communities that had the guts to try to protect themselves.

Now back to the present. The oil and gas industry has been spending millions of dollars on advertising to buy off the mainstream news media (TV and newspapers) and convince Coloradans that fracking is good for you. It hasn’t worked, of course, because people aren’t stupid.

The industry’s argument that fracking is good for you because it creates jobs makes about as much sense as saying terrorism is good for you because it employs bomb builders and generates economic rewards for the families of suicide bombers. The oil and gas industry only makes up about 1 percent of Colorado’s work force and many of those jobs are in offices in downtown Denver and aren’t going anywhere regardless of Colorado’s local fracking bans, even if such bans start appearing statewide. Many other oil patch jobs are in places like Weld County that are enthusiastic about trading their air and water quality for new county buildings, so those jobs aren’t going anywhere either. In fact, if you actually tried to calculate how many oil and gas jobs would never be created — not “lost” as the industry is so fond of stating — because drilling rigs aren’t allowed inside city limits, the number would be so small as to be meaningless, as in negligible. How do I know it’s negligible? Because as I said, the entire industry makes up less than 1 percent of the Colorado workforce and fracking uses up about 1 percent of the state’s water and in that scenario the industry says 1 percent is “negligible.” I’m just applying the oil industry’s own standard to its jobs.

The industry is scared. It’s bought the Governor; it’s bought the mainstream media and its spending millions on 30-second spots and mailers to convey its disinformation and its still getting its ass kicked by a bunch of moms and dads and even kids who don’t mind giving up a few hours a week to encourage their neighbors to preserve the quality of life in their communities. It must be so frustrating. I feel bad for them, I do.

In an effort to keep citizen initiatives off the November ballot that would give more control over land-use decisions such as drilling to local governments statewide, Hickenlooper is desperately trying to call a special session so that state legislators can pass a law, supposedly a compromise of some sort between the industry and environmentalists, that would get the initiatives dropped off the ballot.

Here is what is wrong with this picture and the current position of our friend Congressman Polis.

If you really wanted to create a compromise you would invite the two sides in opposition. That’s how it works, Governor. You don’t invite the oil and gas industry, an industry-friendly environmental group that opposes fracking bans and Jared Polis to sit down and carve out a middle ground. Those people are already on the same side for all intents and purposes. You failed to invite the actual other side, which is composed of local grassroots organizations like Our Longmont, Our Broomfield, Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins, Be The Change, The Garfield Transparency Project, Food and Water Watch, What the Frack?, The Mother’s Project, 350 Colorado, Protect Our Loveland and Frack Free Colorado. These are the organizations who actually represent the places where roughly a half million people are now protected from the oil and gas industry.

Note to everyone who has been invited to the governor’s private negotiations designed to get fracking off the ballot: Stop treating this massive citizens movement like the simple political fodder you’re used to. You don’t get it.

As if to clearly demonstrate their total disconnect from the anti-fracking, local-control groundswell, those with the secret invites to the governor’s table have been making public statements like “we all want to resolve this issue before both sides are forced to spend millions and millions of dollars in a bitter election battle.” Are you kidding?

Hello. The people who are pushing the citizen-driven local-control ballot initiatives don’t give a rat’s ass how much money the industry has to spend in its next feeble attempt to buy an election. The real grassroots organizations fighting the industry don’t actually care how much money Polis spends either. Grassroots organizations opposed to fracking already know and have proven they don’t need mass amounts of money to win. They have won every election so far while being outspent by tens of millions of dollars.

In fact, what the oil industry PR machine doesn’t understand is that the more it spends screaming that fracking is safe, the more suspicious and weary the public becomes. In the real world, people who aren’t doing something wrong don’t feel the need to tell you they aren’t doing anything wrong every two minutes.

No one wants to compromise away their air and water to avoid spending money on TV commercials. This whole “spending” argument by those supposedly working on a compromise just proves that only one side is at the table.

Jared, please remember the past. Longmont City Council passed a new set of oil and gas ordinances that gave them more control over setbacks, light, noise, dust and even established stricter water and air monitoring at the oil industry’s expense. It was a very similar set of rules as those now being proposed as a grand compromise worthy of a special session at the capital.

Do you recall what the citizens of Longmont did after their council established these new rules? They immediately said that’s not nearly enough to protect our quality of life and our children’s health and they went against the council and put a fracking ban on the ballot and passed it overwhelmingly.

Don’t sit down with Hickenlooper and his oil industry pals thinking you can cut a deal that will carry your constituents back across a difficult road to a place they’ve already been and rejected. That’s a routine best left to professional comedians.

If the people of Colorado wanted this compromise then they would have chosen to follow Longmont City Council’s lead years ago, but they didn’t. They rejected such meaningless partial measures then and they still reject them today.

If you don’t want to spend a ton of your own money bankrolling an election battle on local control of fracking, then don’t. No one will think the worse of you for that, but sell the people out with a compromise they didn’t ask for and don’t want, and that’s a different story.

And while I have your attention, it doesn’t actually seem possible to be for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and still claim to be an opponent of fracking. But maybe you have never considered yourself an opponent of fracking. Maybe you are for fracking any and everywhere so long as it isn’t next to houses like yours. We need to know your true position loud and clear.

The TPP not only makes it possible to export unlimited amounts of natural gas without need for federal approval, it also makes it possible for oil companies to go before non-elected arbitration judges and have local fracking bans, moratoriums and other environmental regulations overturned. It makes corporations more powerful than local, even state, democracies. If you support the ballot measures then how can you support a trade agreement that would overturn them?

The industry is excited about the TPP and the pending European trade agreement because both will cause massive exports that will lead to the largest natural gas boom in U.S. history, albeit a short boom lasting only until other countries get their own gas online. But short as it will be, perhaps 10 years, that boom will be more environmentally devastating to the nearly 40 states that it impacts than anything this country has ever experienced.

And if the new research is correct, the methane that such an export-driven boom will release will do more to destroy the planet by way of global warming than anything that could have been done by burning coal and oil. If the industry wins this battle, it will be too late to save the planet, period.

You can’t have it both ways Congressman, either admit to the voters that you are in favor of a shale gas drilling boom for the purpose of enriching the oil and gas industry in the export market so long as it’s done away from houses, or fight it on all fronts. Until then, it’s probably not a good idea to pretend to be speaking for the rest of the folks who know exactly what they are fighting for. They have no interest in Hickenlooper’s oilfriendly compromise. Thanks, but no thanks.


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