DENVER–More evidence that Colorado has become ground zero of the environmental movement’s war on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, surfaced at this week’s Boulder County commission meeting.
The commissioners issued a crackdown on public protests after a Tuesday hearing to consider local fracking regulations erupted into a mob scene, saying they would eject anyone who disrupts meetings and prosecute anyone who threatens “the safety of other individuals.”
Wendy Wiedenback, a Denver representative from Encana Oil and Gas, was followed to her car by angry anti-fracking activists after she testified at Tuesday night’s meeting against a proposed moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
Wiedenback was accompanied by a security officer and unharmed, but commissioners were outraged by the protestors’ antics.
“Last night’s effort by a small segment of attendees to threaten and intimidate a speaker walking to her car was nothing short of shameful,” said the commission in a statement. “Public hearings should create a space for everyone to feel comfortable to participate. Furthermore, any speaker should be able to attend and leave a public hearing free of threatening harassment.”
The Boulder episode comes as the latest example of a heightened anti-fracking activism sweeping the state, fueled by a combination of local concerns, the state green lobby, and national environmental groups that have chosen Colorado as the ideal location for a high-profile stand.
“Some of this is NIMBY-ism, but a lot of this is national,” said Sean Paige, co-state director of Americans for Prosperity, which supports fracking. “Who’s really pulling the strings here? Those fanatics chasing that poor woman down the street–were those really local people? There’s no question that the tone and the sensational science are trickling down from national groups.”
Colorado is in many ways the ideal state for an anti-fracking outcry, even though its development can’t match the boom now taking place in North Dakota and Texas. Unlike those states, Colorado has a powerful state environmental movement, two pro-green Democratic senators, and a Democrat-controlled legislature receptive to stiffer restrictions on oil and gas development.
National green groups like Clean Water Action and Moms Rising have poured resources into the state’s anti-fracking movement, and the results have showed. In the past few months, Colorado has witnessed the following moves against hydraulic fracturing:
* Longmont citizens voted to outlaw fracking in the November election, several months after the city voted to ban new oil and gas permits. The state has sued to overturn the ban;
* A half-dozen other municipalities are considering local regulations. The Fort Collins City Council passed a six-month moratorium on fracking Tuesday, while the Colorado Springs city council rejected a ban at its Nov. 27 meeting;
* An informal meeting held by Gov. John Hickenlooper with Boulder County commissioners at his office Nov. 20 ended up packed with fracking foes, including Democratic Rep. Jared Polis.
A 50-year-old technology, hydraulic fracturing involves blasting rock deep in the earth with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, allowing drillers to extract enormous amounts of natural and gas and oil previously unreachable and spurring a boom in fossil-fuel production.
Foes of fracking in Colorado have argued that the practice poses a danger to air quality and groundwater. They have argued in favor of expanding water testing and increasing the setbacks between fracking operations and residential areas.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is charged with setting fracking standards for the state, has recommended keeping the 350-foot setback in its recently proposed rule changes. The commission is slated to meet Monday and Tuesday for a public hearing at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel.
If the commission refuses to extend the setbacks, state Democrats have indicated that they may step in with their own changes. A bill to extend the setbacks to 1,000 feet was defeated by one vote in committee by the Republican-controlled House, but Democrats took back the majority in November.
In a guest commentary in The Denver Post, Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll and state Rep. Rhonda Fields argued in favor of 1,000-foot buffer zones and allowing localities to set their own fracking rules, “overseen by the state.”
Meanwhile, Clean Water Action and Sierra Club are calling for 2,000-foot setbacks. “We would support any effort to extend the setbacks, whether through regulation or legislation,” said CWA program director Gary Wockner.
Standing in their way is the Democratic governor, who has made it clear that he supports a statewide standard, not a patchwork of municipal rules. A former geologist and businessman, Hickenlooper has also spoken out strongly in favor of fracking, arguing that the process is both an economic boon and environmentally safe.
“He’s definitely out of sync with his party,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “There’s a very small hydrocarbon lobby in the Democratic Party, which is becoming overwhelmingly green. The question is, can he hold the line that it [fracking] needs to remain at the state level and that there needs to be a balance?”