Sara Barwinski, a minority of one on Hickenlooper fracking commission
Sara Barwinski is one of the 19 members of the new oil-and-gas task force formed last month by Gov. John Hickenlooper to address concerns about boom-time drilling activity as it has moved in and around Front Range cities and towns.
Barwinski is in the extreme minority on the new commission — a minority of one. She was nominated by her state representative, Dave Young, to speak for concerned Front Range homeowners. She is the only Front Range “civilian” member of the commission. There is Jim Fitzgerald, an activist and rancher from Bayfield on the Western Slope, and there is Kent Peppler, a farmer in Mead and president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. The rest of the members of the commission are lawyers, oil-industry executives, former state officials and a judge.
“Hey, I realize I may be a token,” Barwinski told The Independent. “I’m going in with my eyes open… But I give the commission credit for recognizing the role played by Greeley in all of this and for acknowledging neighborhood concerns.”
Increasing percentages of Coloradans, particularly on the relatively populous Front Range, have been demanding greater power to respond to threats posed by expanded drilling operation to public health and safety and to property values. Voters over the last three election cycles have passed bans or moratoriums in five Front Range cities, drawing lawsuits from the oil-and-gas industry and from the state. Hickenlooper’s task force will be chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and XTO Energy President Randy Cleveland. It was a compromise engineered by interested parties and the Governor to end a political standoff, where dueling ballot initiatives and multi-million-dollar messaging campaigns threatened to wreak havoc with election-year candidate campaigns and set new laws into the state constitution that would be difficult to adjust or refine. The commission is tasked with making recommendations to the legislature by the end February on topics like zoning to reduce dust and noise, testing air and water quality, and establishing the best mandatory distances drillers would have to place between their wellpads and residential or community buildings.
Barwinski lives in northwest Greeley, about 500 feet from a natural gas wellpad that’s sited between her house and Northridge High School. The well site stands atop the city’s Sheep Draw watershed, which is fed by the nearby Poudre River. The Sheep Draw wetlands that stretch behind Barwinski’s house are also a bird habitat. When I visited her last summer, she showed me a tree where hawks nest. She also stopped me talking at one point in her backyard so we could listen to birdsong. Weeks after we met, the city approved an expansion of the wellpad near her home. It is growing from 6 wellheads to 18 wellheads and from 6 storage tanks to 32 storage tanks.
Last year, Barwinski joined Weld Air and Water, a group of local residents concerned about hydraulic fracturing, specifically the way it is transforming Greeley. “Frackers” drill wells miles into the earth, stretching horizontally under the city, and shoot millions of gallons of a chemical-water-sand mixture into rock formations to free up natural gas and oil. Greeley is a high-plains city of nearly 100,000. It’s surrounded by fields and farms. Planners anticipate that roughly 1,600 fracking wells will be drilled inside city limits over the next few years. More than 20,000 wells already dot surrounding Weld County.
Barwinski is retired but she’s busy. Maps of drilling activity, state regulation files and Greeley zoning reports fill her office and teeter in piles on top of the coffee table in her living room. She is an incurably polite person and she has been respectfully making the case all year in city and state forums that fracking should be done better and safer and much farther away from homes and schools than it’s being done today. She also has been frustrated by the power structure in Greeley and in Denver, where she says insider policymakers can seem too closely aligned with the oil-and-gas industry and its interests.
I asked her if now, as a member of the governor’s blue ribbon commission, she technically qualifies as an insider.
“I’ll see if I feel like an insider when I get there,” she said, laughing.
Happy Fracking Graduation
Barwinski’s Hunters Cove neighborhood tells a story. Two blocks east of her house there’s a farm with a semi-paved road that runs along the east side of the fields. Two signs now stand out front: “No Trespassing” and “No Oil Field Traffic.”
A block north of the farm, a house sits alone with a small horse paddock behind it. The renters who lived there last year when I visited were considering leasing to own the house. Barwinski tells me they’re gone now. They were a young couple with a toddler and a speckled, white horse that lolled out in the sun. Not 400 feet from the house — mere paces — sits the neighborhood wellpad, home to six wells at the time. The woman who lived in the house asked me not to print her name but she said the wellsite used to sound like a car engine backfiring outside their bedroom window. Eventually, Synergy Resources Corporation, the operator, came out and fixed a stuck valve. The woman also showed me a mostly purple slick that formed on the surface of the water in the horse trough. She said she felt terrible about it and skimmed off the top of the water every morning. “Where does it come from?” she asked.
On the other side of the wellpad, about 700 feet away, is the Northridge High School Stadium 6 running track. Photos of the school’s graduation ceremony in May went semi-viral in Colorado environmental and politics online communities. Synergy had embarked on its site expansion plan and, according to the deal it worked out with city planners, the company erected 20-foot walls around the site to shield the neighborhood from the 24/7 noise and lights. The wall nearest the high school track bears graffiti of a shadow-figure striking a pose of overwhelmed shock or fright. The drill tower behind the stadium stretches high above the wall and looms like a watchtower over the graduation ceremony. “Happy Fracking Graduation Day, Greeley!” wrote state politics blogsite ColoradoPols. “We’re guessing grandma and Aunt Sally aren’t going to be too pleased with the view from the stands.”
As Barwinski told the Planning Commission considering the expansion a year ago, and as she also wrote in an op-ed for the Greeley Tribune and the Colorado Independent, “[T]he drilling plan near my home meets the minimum setback requirements by Greeley’s development codes, [but] it flunks all of the setback requirements that go into effect for new applications…”
Setback standards prior to August 1, 2013, were 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas. Those limits were extended to 500 feet statewide. Initiatives that could have made the ballot this year if not for the deal struck by the Governor, proposed setbacks of 1,500 and 2,000 feet.
Frack-Country Donut Hole
The governor’s task force does not include even one of the local residents who pushed for the bans or moratoriums on fracking passed in five Front Range cities — Fort Collins, Longmont, Lafayette, Boulder, Broomfield — as the Fort Collins Coloradoan reported this week. Yet it was the popular movement behind the bans that led to the election-year political clashing that forced the governor to act and create the task force.
Barwinski is only an approximation of those pro-ban residents. She’s not one of them, at least she hasn’t been. She has said she supports fracking in industrial parts of town, given proper precautions, and she lives in Greeley, the shrinking “donut-hole” on well-maps of Front Range drilling country. In Greeley, oil and gas is king and there was never any serious attempt to propose a halt to fracking within city limits.
“I’m not naive,” she said. “Will we manage to do something or will it be a political quagmire that goes nowhere? I am looking at the commission as an opportunity. This is the train that’s moving right now and we have to climb aboard. It’s a track along which we can do what’s right for Colorado — or at least further discover where we all stand.”
[ Images: Scenes from the Hunters Cove neighborhood in Greeley and, bottom, Greeley “frack country donut hole” in a well-tracking map at ESER.org. ]
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