Gov. John Hickenlooper has acknowledged that recent municipal votes imposing hydraulic fracturing bans in four Colorado cities demonstrate the health concerns of Colorado residents living amid a record gas and oil drilling boom along the state’s Front Range.
“The fracking ban votes reflect the genuine anxiety and concern of having an industrial process close to neighborhoods,” Hickenlooper said recently in a prepared statement. The statement came after a tally of final votes showed residents in Broomfield successfully passed a fourth so-called “fracking ban” in Colorado.
Fort Collins, Boulder and Lafayette voters passed similar bans by much wider margins earlier this month, but Broomfield’s vote was so close (10,350 to 10,333) that it has triggered an automatic recount.
Christi Zeller, director of the La Plata County Energy Council, said the votes in Boulder and Lafayette are symbolic. Boulder County has some production, but the city of Boulder’s last gas well was plugged in 1999, she said.
“The bans are an emotional response,” Zeller said. “A lot of professional agitators are manipulating people’s response.”
The six counties that produce 83 percent of the state’s natural gas are La Plata, Rio Blanco, Las Animas, Yuma, Garfield and Weld, Zeller said.
Water-well testing is required by the Colorado Gas and Oil Commission, Zeller said. It’s done before drilling and then three and six years after to make sure extracting operations aren’t communicating with water wells.
Hickenlooper said mineral rights need to be protected and that the four communities can work with the state’s chief regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to mitigate environmental and health concerns.
“Local fracking bans essentially deprive people of their legal rights to access the property they own. Our state Constitution protects these rights,” the governor said. “A framework exists for local communities to work collaboratively with state regulators and the energy industry. We all share the same desire of keeping communities safe.”
But Dan Randolph, director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said that Hickenlooper, as a former gas and oil industry employee, doesn’t get it.
Randolph said there are legitimate concerns tied to gas and oil production. He cited health, water quality and noise.
“There is no question that there is an increase of volatile organic compounds in the air during gas and gas development,” Randolph said. “There are and have been serious concerns elsewhere. This is not unique to Colorado.
“He should talk to the people who approved the bans, not the people who oppose them,” Randolph said. “His credibility on oil and gas issues is very low with the general public.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the high-pressure pumping of thousands of gallons of water, with some sand and small amounts of chemicals, deep underground into gas and oil wells to crack open tight geological formations and free up more gas and oil. Fracking occurs in more than 90 percent of all gas and oil wells in the state.
Backers claim the process is largely safe and has opened up vast new reserves throughout the state. But critics argue the process can lead to contamination of water supplies and cause unhealthy air emissions near large population centers.
Gary Wockner of the environmental group Clean Water Action said the clean sweep by all four communities should be a “wake-up call” for Hickenlooper – one that precludes further legal action that the state and the industry has initiated against past fracking bans.
“If Gov. Hickenlooper actually thinks he can address this outcry by suing over 300,000 citizens in all four of these Colorado cities, he’s completely out of touch,” Wockner said in a statement. “Hickenlooper needs to dramatically change course and find a cooperative path forward that respects the vote and will of the people.”
Hickenlooper did not say if the state will pursue additional legal action.
“These bans may or may not result in new legal challenges from mineral rights holders, individual companies or others,” he said. “No matter what happens, we won’t stop working with local governments and supporting regulations that can be a national model for protecting public health and safety.”
Industry representatives credited the close tally in Broomfield as one that has changed the dialogue in favor of gas and oil drilling proponents.
“In a very tight race, Broomfield voters demonstrated that they’re concerned about extreme energy bans,” Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said in a statement. “In Round 1, we significantly changed the dialogue about Colorado’s energy future. Round 2 starts today. We will continue until we put an end to the misinformation that ban supporters have been spreading for years.”
But Mike Foote, a Democratic state representative from Lafayette, said the industry needs to listen to what voters are telling them.
“The votes on the fracking bans and moratoria should have sent a clear message,” Foote said. “Time will tell whether the industry hears it for what it is rather than try to explain it away. A lot of people are concerned about their health and the industry’s impact, and we must work together to address those concerns.”
Fracking-ban proponents for the grass-roots group Our Broomfield claim to have been outspent 25-to-1 by the industry.
“The commonsense voters of Broomfield, a good representation of the mainstream values of all Coloradans, believe that fracking should not take place in our community unless it can be definitively proven safe,” Our Broomfield’s Nate Troup said in a statement. “Our true swing community unofficially approved a sensible, balanced approach to addressing the threat of this industrial process.”
Herald Staff Writer Dale Rodebaugh contributed to this report. Colorado Public News, a nonprofit news organization, reports on issues of statewide interest. It partners with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station.