As natural-gas development has made its way into more populous communities across the state and nation in recent years, the concern about its impacts on human health and the environment has correspondingly grown. Hydraulic fracturing in particular has caused alarm in communities where gas development occurs, with trepidation about its effect on groundwater. The response has varied, but a crescendoing chorus of consternation in Front Range communities has resulted in several fracking bans. While the sentiment driving such is understandable, it is a bit extreme.
Natural-gas development is a long-established activity in La Plata County, and fracking is a familiar process to gas operators and property owners with wells on their land. Throughout the decades, a conversation about fracking’s groundwater implications, as well as other drilling-related impacts, has brought about a regulatory environment in the county that by and large balances the interests of landowners, gas operators, and environment and human health concerns. That balance – which was not easily or quickly struck – significantly informed the statewide gas development framework. And there is always room for improvement to accommodate new information, effects and technology.
For better or worse, this process has allowed gas operators access to their property – something state law requires – and served to mitigate the effects of the development. The bans on hydraulic fracturing that Broomfied, Lafayette, Boulder and Fort Collins passed recently do not allow for such a process to unfold. While the concern that residents have about fracking is legitimate to raise and should be incorporated into the regulatory conversation, banning the process outright through popular vote is the wrong tack to take.
As Gov. John Hickenlooper rightly acknowledges, the bans reflect alarm about an unfamiliar and controversial practice – injecting a cocktail of water and chemicals into wells to release natural gas for capture. “The fracking ban votes reflect the genuine anxiety and concern of having an industrial process close to neighborhoods,” Hickenlooper said in a statement responding to the bans, which voters approved earlier this month. But he went on to address the meat of the matter:
“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.”
He is right, and there is opportunity – as well as precedent – for actualizing that desire through the framework Hickenlooper identified. Bans distance all parties from that conversational platform, further entrenching and polarizing various interests. A lawsuit against the cities that passed the bans is a possibility; that is hardly the path to common ground.
Natural-gas development, like it or not, is an activity that is in Colorado to stay for the foreseeable future, and while there are legitimate concerns about how the activity unfolds, addressing those concerns is best accomplished through dialogue, advocacy and collaboration. Reactionary bans do not qualify.