FRACTURED, Part V: Trouble in Triple Creek

Colorado’s new rules fail to protect neighborhood residents from the impacts of oil and gas drilling

FRACTURED, Part V: Trouble in Triple Creek
Over the past decade, Colorado has grappled with how to balance the enormous economic value of oil and gas production, including tax revenues and jobs, with its unwanted impacts on residential communities and the environment. FRACTURED is a new series by The Colorado Independent that examines the science, politics and humanity of oil and gas development and explores its impacts on Coloradans around the state. 

 

It was Sept. 27, and the room was game-day tense. Greeley residents Lowell Lewis, Nelly Morales and Dawn Stein sat near the lawyer representing their neighborhood group at a meeting with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Director Matthew Lepore and two others from the agency charged with regulating the state’s oil and gas industry sat around a table in their downtown Denver conference room, joined by two representatives from Extraction Oil and Gas, the company applying to drill in the residents’ Triple Creek neighborhood. Lepore and the Commission held the ultimate authority to decide the project’s fate, and the stakes were high for everybody.

The Greeley residents, part of a neighborhood group called Triple Creek Action, peppered Extraction representatives with questions about their company’s proposal to drill 22 oil and gas wells and place 24 storage tanks, 22 separators and assorted industrial machinery in a horse pasture adjacent to their neighborhood. Couldn’t Extraction find another place to put all those tanks? What about Extraction’s plan to install pipelines to reduce the number of trucks passing close to their homes?

“Why did you have to put the access route for your trucks 35 feet from my bedroom window?” 60-year-old resident Dawn Stein asked.

At the COGCC meeting, the three Triple Creek residents said Extraction representatives had gone back on their word to create a nearly “tankless” operation through the use of pipelines rather than more invasive truck traffic to transport extracted gas. Using pipelines, residents said, was part of the requirement that Extraction use “best available technologies” in its drilling operations, which was mandated by the new neighborhood drilling rules that emerged from Gov. Hickenlooper’s contentious 2014 Oil and Gas Task Force. The rules, meant to address concerns about drilling near populated urban areas, were supposed to safeguard residential communities such as Triple Creek from the most severe impacts of new oil and gas development.

But as the meeting in the COGCC office unfolded, the Greeley residents began to doubt that Lepore and his staff were going to follow their own rules.

The Triple Creek residents later recounted that several times during the meeting, after one of them posed a question to an Extraction employee, it was Lepore who answered instead. “It was like [Lepore] was Extraction’s representative,” said Lewis, a retired civil engineer who lives in the neighborhood.

At one point, the residents’ lawyer Matthew Sura faced off with Lepore. Sura insisted that the COGCC would be ignoring two key provisions of the new rules if they approved Extraction’s Triple Creek plans as presented: one, that companies must rigorously assess their ability to conduct operations “as far as possible” from where people lived; and two, that companies use state-of-the-art technology to minimize impacts.

Sura had been on the Governor’s Task Force, and knew that every change in the rules that even remotely inconvenienced the industry was hard-fought. The neighborhood drilling rules were, in Sura’s opinion, the only substantive protections that the Task Force had achieved for neighborhood residents. But Lepore, Sura said, didn’t seem inclined to apply even those rules to Extraction’s plans.

Extraction Oil and Gas is a mid-sized, Denver-based oil and gas producer that has been operating since 2012. The company currently has more than 400 producing wells throughout Colorado, many of them in fracking-heavy Weld County.

As the meeting wound down, Lepore made a comment that residents say left them dumbstruck. “You need to understand the amount of money that Extraction has already put into this site,” they recall him saying. “And they need a return on their investment soon.”

To the residents, the remark demonstrated that the COGCC was prioritizing Extraction’s financial interests over the concerns of the neighborhood.

Lepore disagrees with the perception that he was taking Extraction’s side. He said that during the meeting, he simply noted Extraction’s perspective that it had invested “a great deal of time and money in the Triple Creek site and at some point in time would expect” to make a return on its investment.

“Articulating that perspective as part of describing the situation at this location should not be mistaken for advocating for it,” he said. Extraction spokesman Brian Cain declined to comment about these exchanges.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Extraction Oil and Gas held an initial public offering of 33.3 million shares of its stock on Wall Street. The estimated value of the company exceeded $3 billion. Three days later, the COGCC approved Extraction’s Triple Creek application, which included no mention of the more costly tankless proposal.

Dawn Stein outside her home in Triple Creek neighborhood, Greeley, Colorado. The access road to the new oil and gas development will be 35 feet from her bedroom window. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Dawn Stein outside her home in Triple Creek neighborhood, Greeley, Colorado. The access road to the new oil and gas development will be 35 feet from her bedroom window. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Taking the Task Force to task

Extraction’s Triple Creek proposal provides the first Front Range test case of the COGCC’s highly publicized new rules for neighborhood drilling, which were published on Jan. 25, 2016, and put into effect March 16.

Those rules emerged from a contentious political season. From 2011 through 2013, four Colorado cities (Fort Collins, Longmont, Broomfield and Lafayette) and two counties (El Paso and Boulder) passed citizen-driven bans or temporary halts on hydraulic fracturing in their jurisdictions. As this wave of citizen concern grew, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis financed two 2014 ballot initiatives that would give local communities more control over drilling and require larger setbacks from where people lived.

Industry backers countered with two proposed ballot initiatives of their own, one of which would have kept state oil and gas revenues out of places that banned fracking. Finally, in a brokered deal, Gov. John Hickenlooper arranged for everybody to stand down: In exchange for both sides withdrawing their proposals, the governor assembled a task force that would seek middle ground.

When the final rules emerged, many of those hoping for “middle ground” felt almost completely shut out. The task force convened in September 2014 and was comprised of people from the oil and gas industry, former government administrators, environmentalists, lawyers, agriculture interests and others. But the realpolitik of the task force’s membership, and the requirement of a two-thirds majority vote to pass new rules, effectively gave the energy industry veto power over any decisions.

Still, Polis at the time seemed mollified. “For the first time, citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, home values, clean water, and air quality,” he said in 2014. Asked recently for a more current comment, Polis’s spokeswoman pointed to statements the Congressman made in 2015, after the task force had submitted its proposals: “The task force heard from thousands of Coloradans pleading for better protection, not simply more consultation. Unfortunately…the oil and gas industry blocked their recommendations,” he said.

But the realpolitik of the task force’s membership effectively gave the energy industry veto power over any decisions.

Task force members knew from the start that the pressure point for their deliberations was the increasing number of wells being built and proposed near areas where new homes were sprouting up faster than new well pads – often in the same neighborhoods. Over the past decade, new drilling technology and a multi-year boom in the price of oil propelled huge increases in the scale of drilling operations, even in the midst of existing residential home developments, particularly in Adams and Weld Counties. Growing concerns about the unintended consequences of this oil and gas boom, including impacts on real estate values, roads, public health and the state’s air and water quality, collided with the state’s embrace of significant oil and gas tax revenues and job creation.

Related: The Making of a Fractivist

The task force ultimately created a new acronym, Large Urban Mitigation Areas, or UMAs, to describe populated spaces like neighborhoods where stricter criteria should be considered for drilling. If a new facility with more than eight wells or the capacity to store more than 4,000 barrels of hydrocarbons onsite was proposed in a UMA, then companies had to prove they were using “best available technologies” and were siting the facilities “as far as possible” from residences.

Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado secretary of state and deputy attorney general who served on the task force, told The Independent that creating the neighborhood drilling rules was among the most difficult aspects of the task force’s work. He confirmed that the composition of the task force ensured that certain proposals that the industry opposed, such as allowing communities to institute outright bans or to require larger setbacks, were “non-starters.” Instead, he said, the committee focused on finding ways to “improve this situation given the dramatic difference in viewpoints.” This was especially challenging, said Buescher, since the COGCC must reconcile dual, often conflicting mandates: fostering oil and gas production and protecting citizen health and safety.

According to Buescher, the task force knew that phrases like “best available technology” would be “a continually changing standard” and would give the COGCC the latitude to evolve as companies continued to innovate. The group also recognized that there would be differences in the abilities of different sized operators to meet new standards, since larger companies with thousands of wells generally have substantially more capital than small stripper well operators with only a handful.     

The first test of what these UMA rules mean in practice occurred at the Western Slope community of Battlement Mesa in September 2016. In back-to-back decisions, the COGCC approved two well pad sites in the Garfield County development containing up to 53 total wells, proposed by operator Ursa Resources in the state’s first UMA-designated area.

In Battlement Mesa, both the operator and the COGCC first claimed that the proposed developments didn’t trigger the special UMA requirements at all, but citizen groups successfully argued that the new rules clearly were designed to apply to their situation. In Triple Creek, the same thing happened: The COGCC initially argued that the impacted area lacked the requisite 11 houses needed to qualify as a UMA. Residents had to use Google Earth and a scaled drawing of the area to convince the commission that in fact 13 homes would be affected by the new development.

County commissioners in Battlement Mesa’s Garfield County and city officials in Triple Creek’s Greeley both pushed through approvals of their respective projects over the objections of other governmental agencies. In January 2016, the Greeley Planning Commission rejected Extraction’s Triple Creek proposal unanimously, 6-0, only to be overruled in March by the city council in a contentious 5-2 vote. In the case of Battlement Mesa, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) recommended that the COGCC deny the operator’s permit for an injection well for produced water, citing concerns that it was too close to a water intake that served the community and thus created an “unnecessary long-term risk for a spill.” (Produced water is a byproduct of fracking and contains a mix of trace hydrocarbons, chemicals and minerals.) The operator, Ursa, retracted its request, to drill the injection well in question, but the COGCC allowed Ursa to keep the well listed on its application, meaning the well could still end up permitted and drilled in the future.

In both cases, following the go-ahead from the local authorities, the COGCC approved the projects.

An oil and gas facility in Weld County, Colorado, similar to what residents of Triple Creek will soon see. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

An oil and gas facility in Weld County, Colorado, similar to what residents of Triple Creek will soon see. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

A promise ignored

When Dawn Stein heard the news that Extraction Oil and Gas was going to put an approximately 10-acre industrial facility in the field adjacent to her home, her world spiraled into disarray. The Triple Creek site is located in a field about five miles west of downtown Greeley, a bucolic few acres of horse pasture flanked by subdivisions on three sides. The proposed field currently is home to only two existing wells, one in the north and one alongside a road to the south. The land in question is owned by Richmark Real Estate, a company run by Arlo Richardson, whose Mineral Resources Corporation controls much of the drilling rights in Greeley.

Stein had lived on her three-and-a-half-acre property for the past 32 years and recalls “tons of wildlife” back in the day. There were raccoons, foxes and eagles, and Great Horned owls to which her late husband John would hoot, enticing the birds to reply. “Miss those days,” she said wistfully, sitting in her tidy living room surrounded by family pictures and pets.

Stein was still putting her life back together after John’s death when she attended a neighborhood meeting called by the Greeley Planning Department on Sept. 25, 2014. Extraction Oil and Gas had applied for 22 well pads, plus an array of accompanying industrial infrastructure, in the large field that sat between her home and her view of Longs Peak.

At the meeting, Stein said Extraction tried to calm residents’ fears by saying the company’s team was comprised of Coloradans themselves, and they promised to use state-of-the-art “tankless” facilities, which rely on pipelines to carry the hydrocarbons and “produced water” offsite. The tankless option would have markedly reduced truck traffic, noise and emissions from the development. “They couldn’t have promised us more,” Stein said. “I gave them the benefit of the doubt.”

Extraction’s decision to “go tankless” also caught the ear of COGCC Director Lepore, who expressed his excitement about a new technology that Anandarko Petroleum had developed, called a “High Vapor Pressure” (HVP) system, at a COGCC meeting in July 2016. Anandarko presented the innovation at the meeting, indicating that using HVP would allow the company to avoid on-site storage tanks and separators that can leak methane and volatile organic compounds. The system would also greatly reduce the incessant truck traffic, exhaust, dust and noise — and the eyesore of multiple large tanks — that many residents complain is a constant irritant in neighborhood oil and gas facilities.

At a previous meeting, on Nov. 17, 2015, Lepore had praised the practice of using pipelines, saying that the commission wanted to encourage companies to utilize them. “We think our rules have done that,” Lepore said, noting that “there are two companies doing tankless facilities. You heard from one [Anandarko]; Extraction is the other one.” Extraction spokesman Cain said the company currently operates four pipeline-only projects and has two more in the works.

However, residents report that at a second public meeting on Triple Creek the very next day, on Nov. 18, 2015, Extraction announced that it was no longer going to pipe its production off-site, citing, in part, the economic burden of doing so given declining oil prices.

“They couldn’t have promised us more,” Stein said. “I gave them the benefit of the doubt.”

Stein then learned that Extraction had bought an easement from her next-door neighbor, and that the company planned to use it to build an access road. Documents about Extraction’s plans show the road would become a nonstop parade route of truck and semi-trailer traffic for years, carrying millions of gallons of produced water and hydrocarbons to injection wells and processing plants. The road would be so close to her pillow – about 12 yards, a little more than the distance required to make a first down in football – that she couldn’t believe a company could get away with such plans. “What about the new rules?” Stein wondered. “Weren’t all these new rules supposed to apply to situations like ours?”

Stein is an unlikely combatant in these oil and gas wars. A real estate agent who also runs her late husband’s company – which services office coffee machines – she is appalled at what she sees as a complete lack of regulatory oversight. “The COGCC has so much power. Somebody should be watching them and obviously nobody is.” If the new rules don’t apply here, Stein wondered, “What’s going to happen on the next site? I don’t want anybody else to have to go through this.”

Stein said she never heard from Extraction before they sought approval for their plans. “Nobody ever told me until after it was a done deal,” she said.  

To this, Extraction spokesman Cain said, “It’s regrettable that [she] feel[s] that way,” adding that Extraction went to “great lengths” to publicize its meetings to the neighborhood. Greeley community development director Brad Mueller said the city, following protocol, was in charge of publicizing the meetings, and advertised according to standard requirements. Cain was also quick to point out other new technologies Extraction is using in the project, like electric drilling rigs, quieter transport trucks and 14-foot earthen barrier walls to dampen noise, saying that all qualified as “best available technologies.” He was also confident that the project meets all requirements. “This is one of the best planned projects that I’ve seen in my career,” he said, adding that Extraction continues to consider pipeline installation at Triple Creek as a long-term goal.

When Stein finally met with Extraction representatives on Sept. 27 this year, she told them their project would make her house uninhabitable. She offered to swap homes with the Extraction representatives, and asked why they wouldn’t just buy her out. Stein recalled Extraction representative Blane Thingelstad telling her, “We’re not in the business of buying homes.” Extraction spokesman Cain wouldn’t comment on that remark directly.

Stein isn’t alone in her concerns. Other Triple Creek neighbors formed Neighbors Affected by Triple Creek and gathered comments from dozens of people concerned about Extraction’s plans. They hired Sura, the lawyer who had been on the governor’s task force.

Sura felt Triple Creek was a place where residents had firm legal ground to make a stand, thanks to the COGCC’s new neighborhood drilling rules. Yet he warned his new clients not to hold their breath. “The COGCC has a perfect record,” Sura told them. “They’ve never rejected a company’s siting request.”

Extraction’s backtracking on the pipeline question drew the attention of other people in the energy industry. Lynn Peterson, the CEO of Synergy Resources, publicly admonished Extraction last February for its bait-and-switch on the Triple Creek location in an industry publication. “Well shame on us as an industry if that’s really the way you feel,” Peterson wrote. “You can’t go in and tell residents you can’t do these things because it costs you money. You don’t tell the residents, ‘sorry, but you have to deal with it.’ That doesn’t fly.”

On the phone with The Independent recently, Peterson backpedaled: “I don’t criticize any operators,” he said. Though he refused to compare Extraction’s behavior with Synergy’s (or any other operator’s), he admitted that his own company increasingly relies on pipelines instead of noisy trucks, despite the additional cost. “I’d ask for you to read between the lines,” he said. 

That Extraction told the community it would go tankless is widely agreed upon, despite the company’s waffling on whether it made a “promise” or a “commitment” or simply mentioned the option at a public meeting. Greeley community development director Mueller confirmed that he believes Extraction told the community it would forego  tanks during a neighborhood meeting. “They certainly left many people with the impression that they were going to do it,” he said. “I don’t think anybody who was there, including the owners, disagree that they said that.”

Triple Creek residents say Extraction, in fact, is denying saying it. “Regrettably, they have said it so many times to so many people that this Big Lie has become ‘truth’ with the passage of time and the COGCC has now started to repeat it,” said longtime resident Lowell Lewis.

Where does this discrepancy come from? In its response to 70 public comments, the COGCC wrote, “At no time during the COGCC’s Form 2A process did Extraction Oil and Gas propose that the Triple Creek Oil and Gas facility would be tankless.” In other words: The neighborhood meetings in which Extraction assured Triple Creek residents it would use pipelines were not part of the official process, and thus, the argument goes, promises made during those meetings have no relevance to the project’s approval. Company spokesman Cain told The Independent that Extraction hopes to eventually install the necessary pipelines, but left it out of its application because it couldn’t be sure.

The COGCC said only that, despite the verbal pledge, the application did not include the plans to go tankless and “there is currently no statutory or regulatory requirement that oil and gas operators pipe all of their fluids from an oil and gas facility.”

Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, who supported Extraction’s application, said that neighborhood meetings represent non-binding discussions that play no meaningful part in the eventual approval process. “It doesn’t matter how much they battled back and forth trying to make people happy,” he said of Extraction’s meetings with the neighbors. In that informal setting, he explained, “They can say whatever they want.”

Lowell Lewis, Triple Creek resident. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Lowell Lewis, Triple Creek resident. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

New rules, old tricks

Perhaps ironically, Greeley was one of the first Colorado cities to pass a local ordinance prohibiting oil and gas drilling, back in 1985. Both the City Council and a voter-approved ballot measure ensured that the city limits would not be open to drilling.

In 1992, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of an energy company that challenged the Greeley ban. That famous ruling, Voss v. Lundvall Bros, set the scene for a lot of what has followed. Justice Joseph Quinn ruled that the statewide interest in oil and gas development was significant enough to prevent any city from banning it. As Triple Creek resident Lewis puts it, the upshot in 2016 is that Greeley is now “the most fracked city in Colorado.”

Despite Greeley’s reputation as an industry-friendly town, all six volunteer members of the Greeley Planning Commission reviewed Extraction’s plan in late 2015 and voted to reject the project. After hearing feedback from more than 100 Greeley residents, the commissioners ruled that the location was “inappropriate” for such a large number of wells and that the project would be “very detrimental to the community” in and around the area. “We were all thrilled,” said Stein. “Somebody got some smarts and saw this huge site does not belong in a residential area.”

Then the application went to the city council. At a packed meeting on March 8th of this year, the council signalled its intention to overturn the Planning Commission decision. Stein attended, but said the council chamber was packed with Extraction employees, their families and supporters filling the closest seats, a standard industry tactic. The meeting started at just after 6 p.m., but residents weren’t allowed to speak until 10:10. p.m. Stein, who has endured five back surgeries, couldn’t stand long enough to speak. She went home to watch the rest of the meeting on her iPad.

The Greeley City Council approved Extraction’s project 5-2 at 12:30 a.m. Councilwoman Sandi Elder, who voted to deny the application, said she found 22 wells “excessive” but thought Extraction did meet all the necessary criteria. “What led me to vote against this was the number of individuals that came forth, and I very rarely change from what the Planning Commission has recommended,” she said. In their decision, the majority of council members cited Extraction’s property rights to access the underground minerals.

Again, the citizen group cried foul, claiming that property rights had nothing to do with it. By Greeley city ordinance, Extraction’s project required a “Use by Special Review” hearing, which involves a test for proposals of this magnitude. The project had to meet each of five criteria: 1) be consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan; 2) be compatible with existing and future land uses; 3) be suitable for the type of intensity of the proposed land use; 4) not adversely affect traffic flow or parking in the neighborhood; and 5) be in a location which had been analyzed to consider the cumulative effects of the project.

Triple Creek residents were shocked that the Extraction proposal passed any of these tests, but one, in particular, stood out: the project’s impact on traffic. Well pad access would be from 71st Avenue, a two-lane rural road slated for improvement, and included an upgrade of the “Sheep Draw” bridge that is already deteriorated and was never meant for intensive industrial use. The road already has much more traffic than ever intended, and is an access route to several schools in the area. In a December 2015 Planning Commission meeting, a traffic engineer for the City of Greeley focused on the traffic impact once the construction phase was complete, which estimates suggest will be about 18 heavy truck trips per day. But during the 72-day construction phase, the estimated number of trips per day is expected to be 200.

Greeley Mayor Norton dismissed the concerns over traffic, referring to the city council’s official ruling. He said the council decided that “there was no traffic impact of that development that exceeded what would result if it was developed as a normal subdivision,” and that frustrated community members “wanted to make something out of the traffic that just didn’t exist.”

Any large truck exiting the proposed access near Stein’s house would temporarily halt traffic going in both directions. Even without the addition of Extraction traffic, the road is already busy, especially around school drop-off and pickup times.

The Greeley City Council was well within its legal rights to overturn the planning commission. But that didn’t stop Planning Commissioner Charles Jones from resigning after the contentious decision. He left his post not because of the council’s vote — “That was in line with their power,” he said — but their reasoning behind it. According to Jones, the City Council felt Extraction had a “property right” that the city couldn’t threaten, and that made his job less meaningful.

“Simply because the mineral owners have the `legal right’ to develop these rights does not immediately constitute acceptance of any and all locations for these types of facilities,” Jones wrote in his resignation letter. “Why go through the process if you’re just going to simply approve everything regardless of their locations and impacts by simply saying they have the `legal right?’”

“They wanted to make something out of the traffic that just didn’t exist.”

Some opponents say Norton yelled at them during the meeting. Norton said in a phone interview with The Independent that they were “probably a little sensitive,” moments before he began shouting during that conversation, too. The mayor was adamant about setting the record straight about Extraction’s so-called “promise,” a term he took big issue with. According to Norton, Extraction mentioning oil pipelines to a group of neighbors could never be interpreted to be a commitment, a guarantee or any binding agreement. He was also loathe to revisit the specifics of Extraction’s application or the Planning Commission’s decision, confident in a certain type of circular reasoning: If City Council approved the application, then the application obviously met all of the requirements for approval.

Storage tanks at an Extraction facility in Greeley, Colorado. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Storage tanks at an oil and gas facility in Weld County, similar to what residents of Triple Creek will soon see. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Access denied

Leaving the fateful Sept. 27 meeting with the COGCC during which Lepore brought up his concerns about Extraction’s bottom line, it struck the Triple Creek residents that it wasn’t Lepore’s job to make a determination about whether and when Extraction Oil and Gas deserved a return on their investment.

It was Lepore’s job, Lewis and the others thought, to make sure that the state of Colorado balanced oil and gas companies’ proposals against the laws of the state and the protection of its citizens from noise, nuisance, chemical exposures and health and environmental problems. Lepore said that balance was achieved in the commission’s handling of both Triple Creek and Battlement Mesa. “We believe the process, which included significant review from Garfield County and the City of Greeley, respectively, was followed thoroughly in all cases,” he told The Independent.

The task force’s Buescher said that although he is not aware of the details of the Triple Creek and Battlement Mesa cases, he understands that the new rules raised community expectations – as well as the performance criteria for operators. Buescher believes that industry operators are improving many aspects of their proposals in response to the rules, such as better noise abatement and the use of electric-powered rather than diesel-powered equipment. Still, Buescher said, “These new rules are new. It will take some time to see their impact on the ground.”

The Triple Creek residents left their meeting with the COGCC with a sinking feeling. Their fears were confirmed two weeks later, when the COGCC announced its approval of Extraction’s application to drill 22 wells in Triple Creek.

On Monday, Oct. 24, Triple Creek residents Stein, Lewis, Christy Malnati and Rick Gerner drove about an hour and a half east to make one final plea. They soon arrived at the Northeastern Junior College ballroom in Sterling, where the COGCC had scheduled one of its relatively rare meetings that allow public comment. Lewis had sent all the commissioners a letter outlining the legal reasoning behind their request for additional review of Extraction’s Triple Creek project, focusing on what the neighbors believed was a deeply flawed interpretation of the COGCC’s own new rules. It was, in effect, a last-minute appeal for relief.

Lewis said he surprised the commissioners when he told them he had spoken briefly to the Governor at a Democratic campaign event in Greeley two days previously. Lewis recounted how he took the opportunity to bend the Governor’s ear about Extraction’s failings, including its insistence on running thousands of trucks past Stein’s bedroom window.

“They’re not using pipelines?” was Hickenlooper’s off-the-cuff response, Lewis said. The Governor’s office declined The Colorado Independent’s request to further discuss the remarks or the situation in Triple Creek.

At the Sterling COGCC meeting, Lewis, dressed in sport coat and tie, told the commissioners that the Triple Creek case involved an historic decision that should not be taken lightly. Given its status as the first application of the neighborhood drilling rules on the Front Range, he said, the decision would set a precedent that would affect communities around the state. If the commission approved the project without due consideration of its failings, Lewis joked, “Just imagine the new neighborhood groups you’ll get to know.”

It was, in effect, a last-minute appeal for relief.

The team of governor-appointed commissioners listened politely, and told the Triple Creek residents that they would take their request for an additional hearing under advisement with their lawyer in an “executive session” during lunch. Lepore suggested that the Triple Creek group stick around in case the commissioners were inclined to respond. After lunch, Lepore told the Triple Creek team that no decision had been made. The Commission’s legal staff from the state attorney general’s office would be in touch with the Triple Creek neighbors’ attorney.

On Oct. 27, Sura received a letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General Jake Matter declining the Triple Creek residents’ request for a “public issues hearing.” The letter stated that the residents, not being “applicants, protestants or intervenors,” lacked the standing to compel a hearing at all. Under COGCC rules, it turns out, such standing applies only to the oil and gas company, the landowner, the local government and the COGCC itself.

Dawn Stein at her home in Triple Creek neighborhood, Greeley, Colorado. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Dawn Stein at her home in Triple Creek. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Not anymore

Extraction’s proposal has wrecked me emotionally and financially,” Stein said. “Since my husband died, this property has become too much for me to keep up. I was hoping to sell it this year but who would buy it now? I am not against the oil and gas industry, but they should not have the ability to destroy a person’s home and life. It’s been pure hell.”

Lepore said situations like the one in Triple Creek are to be expected, new rules or not. “The task force rules were not intended to preclude large facilities, nor did we expect that these locations would be sited without varying degrees of discomfort being expressed by nearby residents,” he told The Independent.

As for Dawn Stein, she said that at this point, she’d take any reasonable buyout and call it a day.

“I was very emotionally attached to this place after living here for 32 years,” she said on an October afternoon, fighting back tears. “This was always our little slice of heaven. But it’s not anymore.”

Other stories in this series include Part I: Who’s behind ‘decline to sign’ efforts?, an examination of the public relations efforts of the oil and gas industry to influence Colorado politics; Part II: The making of a fractivist, a look at of how suburban parents have been energized to fight drilling in their neighborhoods; Part III: Why Colorado’s anti-fracking measures didn’t make the ballot; and Part IV: Why it took so long to shut down Texas Tea, a look at the inadequacies of the state’s regulatory structure.

 

Story by Daniel Glick of The Story Group and Kelsey Ray. Video and photos by Ted Wood/The Story Group.

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About the Author

Daniel Glick, Kelsey Ray and Ted Wood

Kelsey Ray is a reporter with The Colorado Independent.

Dan Glick, a cofounder of The Story Group,worked for Newsweek for 13 years as a Washington correspondent and a roving Rocky Mountain correspondent. He has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Harpers, Esquire, Men’s Journal, Outside, National Wildlife, and more than a dozen other periodicals. In 2014, he was one of the editors of the National Climate Assessment, and has written about climate change issues for more than 20 years.

Ted Wood, the other cofounder of The Story Group, is an editorial photographer and videographer based in Boulder, CO. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, Newsweek, Time, Audubon, The New York Times, High Country News, The Nature Conservancy Magazine and dozens of national and international publications. He specializes in environmental and conservation stories, particularly energy development in the western United States.

See more of their work at TheStoryGroup.org.

4 Comments

  1. Tom in Green Valley Ranch on said:

    Great reporting.

    Things are working out according to plan for the “drill, baby, drill” Democrats. Congratulations. Too bad your kids have to live with the effects of global warming, which you’re so passionately against.

  2. Wayne Jones on said:

    This is a RAPE of a community! Simple Bait and switch. We were backstabbed by our Mayor. Big oil and gas rolls over everyone, and we are supposed to like it. B.S. My retirement investment is ruined, I will not be able to sell my house as a rural peaceful setting. Wayne Jones

  3. Patricia Greenberg on said:

    This is a great article in-depth article guys. Jared Polis is too easily mollified. That’s what got us the useless COGCC in the first place back when they were going to frack across the road from Polis’s farm and he started getting excited. Hickenlooper gave him the COGCC and he bought it, selling the rest of us out. He and Hickenlooper lost all respect from a lot of people with that move.

  4. Patricia Greenberg on said:

    Tom in Green Valley Ranch you can snark all you want but your kids if you have them, or related kids if you don’t, are going to have to live with it too. You’re not going to be able to breathe, your home will be worth nothing, and you won’t be able to drink the water right along with the rest of us. It has less to do with political parties than with power and money hungry greedy narcissistic leadership on all sides.

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