ANALYSIS: In Local Fracking Wars, Tide Turns Against Green Lobby

June 19, 2013
It seems that a quiet shift may be taking place in the state's fracking wars

It seems that a quiet shift may be taking place in the state’s fracking wars

DENVER – It seems that a quiet shift may be taking place in the state’s fracking wars.  After badly losing a ballot fight over fracking in Longmont last year, the oil and gas industry and the state’s wider business community are racking up win after win in their fight against anti-drilling activists in cities and counties across Colorado.

Environmentalists initially opened up this new front in the fight against fossil fuel development, pressing local governments all across the state to curtail or ban oil and gas drilling on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis.

Last year, voters in Longmont passed a total ban on hydraulic fracturing, an embarrassing political setback for the oil and gas industry.  The defeat was a wake-up call for supporters of the industry, who along with Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper went to court to block local drilling prohibitions which, they say, go farther than state law allows.

But Longmont may have been a high-water mark for the environmentalist lobby.

In the months since voter approval of the Longmont fracking ban, jurisdiction after jurisdiction has lined up behind an all-of-the-above energy development policy, leaving 3 jurisdictions in Boulder – Longmont, The City of Boulder, and Boulder County (where a fracking ban is scheduled to end on June 10) as the only places that “fracktivists” have prevailed.

In recent weeks, even as headlines screamed about continued efforts to block development in notoriously liberal Boulder, other Colorado communities have taken a more measured approach.

In Broomfield, for example, officials resisted pressure from anti-drilling campaigners to impose a Boulder-style blanket ban on fracking in favor of setting standards for regulated oil and gas development.

“[Broomfield's approach will] add to the existing safety standards set by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) [and] save taxpayers months of litigation costs that will inevitably follow a ban or a moratorium that will undoubtedly be overridden by the COGCC,” said former city councilor Linda Reynolds.

Reynolds added that the question of whether to allow oil and gas development has implications that extend far beyond Broomfield’s city limits.

“Do we want to continue building foreign governments with our reliance on their natural resources at the expense of freedom?” Reynolds asked rhetorically.  “Especially, when we can tap into our own natural resources, reduce the cost of energy and move our nation toward energy independence.”

Broomfield’s decision to forego a blanket moratorium on drilling comes on the heels of a similar decision by another key swing community – Arapahoe County.

In April, over the objections of anti-drilling environmental activists, Arapahoe County Commissioners approved a mechanism that would expedite approval of drilling applications for operators who can demonstrate that their best practices meet or exceed tough new state rules.

“Oil and gas operations have been taking place in Arapahoe County for more than 40 years without significant issues,” Arapahoe Commissioner Nancy Sharpe told The Observer.  “It is important to recognize that drilling in our county has been an accepted industry.”

“In the fall of 2011, Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners decided not to pass a moratorium on oil and gas drilling that would have essentially stopped new drilling.  Instead, we chose to look at alternatives,” Sharpe said.  “Through that process, we were able to separate fact from fiction and to examine specific Arapahoe County issues.”

“Although there was pressure from anti-fracking groups, we did not allow that pressure to force us into making decisions,” Sharpe concluded.  “We took our time to develop an MOU that, in the end, supports oil and gas operations in our county in a way that is safe and protects the interests of our citizens and the environment.”

Arapahoe County and Broomfield are not alone.  In fact, the two communities’ apparent support for a state-based regulatory approach has become the rule in recent months.

In Centennial, for example, the council took a similarly balanced approach to the issue.

“We were lobbied by the usual anti-fracking crowd, they presented the usual misrepresentations and we saw right through them,” said Centennial Councilman Ken Lucas.  “After some extensive analysis, we believed that the State regs – which are the best in the country – were good enough for us.”

Following the state regulations, Lucas added, doesn’t mean that the local governments give energy companies a free hand to do whatever they want.

“Any permitting still has to come before council for approval — so it is kind of interesting sitting up in the bleachers watching all the fuss,” Lucas told The Observer.  “I believe when we voted on the new ordinance it was 8-1 in favor. “

Further west in Democrat-leaning Routt County, commissioners have backed the issuance of permits to two operators drilling in Colorado’s Niobrara Shale foundation, which includes the fracking of wells in neighboring Moffatt County.

At the center of the resurgence has been Tisha Schuller, President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

“I see myself as a translator, a student of different tribes,” Schuller told Westword in an in-depth profile the news magazine did on her this month.  “Finding common ground is seen as a betrayal to your cause. But our approach to regulation is not to stand and fight, but to engage, and to engage politically in a nonpartisan way. My life is uncomfortable every day, but it’s not an echo chamber.”

A big part of that common ground has been organizing and mobilizing business groups to drive the message for oil and gas development.

Support for a more permissive approach is driven by a better public understanding of what comes with energy development, says John Brackney, President and CEO of the South Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber has found that in hundreds of conversations with business owners, executives and community leaders that once a basic understanding of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is achieved, the conversation and conclusion is almost universally supportive of the industry,” Brackney told The Observer.  “Our urban neighborhoods are full of researchers, engineers, executives and employees who have had and having very successful careers in the oil and gas industry.  The greater metropolitan Denver area is seen internationally as one of the top places for expertise and best practices in the industry.”

Brackney added that a desire to grow the local economy also figures into the equation.

“Colorado citizens understand the importance of energy.  If Colorado can increase our ability to be an energy producer it creates waves of wealth spread throughout our communities.  Direct jobs, supporting jobs, professional services, retail and restaurants, housing prices and governmental services,” said Brackney.  “When elected officials understand a fuller picture – wealth creation, high paying jobs, energy independence, and reliable and inexpensive energy it translates into a stronger and healthier community.

In Loveland, where officials imposed a temporary halt to fracking ban in 2012 to give the city time to update local codes and zoning rules related to oil and gas development, officials have signaled support for regulated energy development consistent with state rules.

“You cannot have 500 sets of rules for every jurisdiction, every county and every municipality when it comes to an industry that has to operate across Colorado using the same technology,” said Loveland City Councilman Hugh McKean.

McKean also suggested that the language being used by green groups in support of a local moratorium can be vague, and that what activists are often pushing for isn’t the kind of temporary “time out” that Loveland put in place to update their policies.

“You have to look closely at these ‘moratoriums’ that green groups are asking for, and what you end up with is a ban, not a moratorium,” said McKean.

“[Local governments] can’t disenfranchise mineral rights owners in favor of surface owners and not expect the state to say something about it.” McKean added.

Down the road in Fort Collins, where environmental groups have found officials and local reporters generally sympathetic to their arguments, and where anti-drilling activists are collecting signatures to place a 5-year fracking ban on the ballot, industry supporters have also managed to turn the tide.

After first approving a sweeping ban on fracking, the city councilors in Fort Collins later reversed course, voting 4-3 to allow Prospect Energy, the only company that has expressed an interest in Fort Collins operations, to continue drilling.

The decision to effectively nullify the moratorium “will allow Prospect to explore for new oil and gas wells outside of the area where it’s currently operating,” according to Grace Hood of KUNC radio.

Thus, even in heavily Democratic Fort Collins, where the environmental lobby boasts a significant partisan leg-up, the much-ballyhooed fracking ban is arguably a ban in name only – little more than a flimsy public relations victory for the far-left that won’t prevent the only energy company operating there from “Fracking in the Fort.”

While media outlets continue to report about the latest kerfuffle instigated by green groups, below the surface is a different and unavoidable truth that has been developing in recent months;  after winning a key fight in Longmont last year, momentum for anti-fracking activists appears to have bogged down somewhere near the border of Boulder County.

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