GarCo commissioners delay FRAC Act decision after viewing anti-drilling film

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Everyone was a film critic Monday at a somewhat tense screening of the new anti-gas-drilling documentary “Split Estate” for the Garfield County commissioners. Most of the reviews — surprisingly, even from the industry — were glowing.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ("Split Estate")

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (Split Estate)

“I really need to sit down and see it again with a pen and paper,” said Donna Gray, community affairs representative for Williams, the largest operator in gas-rich Garfield County. “Not to fact check it, just to organize our thoughts about it. Again, I’m not ready to say anything, other than it was a very well-done film … very well-done.”

“Split Estate,” an award-winning documentary detailing the environmental conflicts between surface property owners and mineral-rights holders allowed to extract natural gas from their land, was screened for the commissioners at the request of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which hopes to get a resolution from the board supporting greater federal oversight.

Specifically, the GVCA wants the commissioners to back the FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) sponsored by U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis — both Colorado Democrats — and supported and opposed by a number of Colorado towns and counties.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a common gas-drilling process that involves injecting high pressure sand, water and undisclosed chemicals into natural gas wells to force open rock and tight sand formations deep underground and free up more gas.

The process, perfected by the oil services firm Halliburton, was granted an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act during the Bush administration in 2005. The FRAC Act would remove that exemption and force oil and gas companies to broadly disclose the potentially toxic chemicals used in fracking, which industry officials say is competitive and proprietary information.

“One person who gets sick in Garfield County from oil and gas contamination from fracking fluids is one person too many, and we must help them,” GVCA board member Leslie Robinson told the commissioners after reading a resolution her group drafted at the request of the commissioners. The film details complaints from Silt and Rifle residents who say their health has been compromised for years by drilling operations on their land that have fouled the air and water.

“[A pro-FRAC-Act resolution] would make a lot of difference, and the county commissioners, with this movie, it’s something to make them sit up and notice,” said Dee Hoffmeister of Dry Hollow, south of Silt. “If it’s not in their backyard, they don’t really know what the ramifications are. It’s only those of us who have in our backyard and are sick from it [who know], and this movie is really showing what’s going on more than anything.

Some physicians agree people are being poisoned by fumes and undisclosed chemicals in groundwater supplies. They say there are simply too many cases of breathing problems, dizziness, unexplained achiness, nausea, bloody noses and eyes, neurological disorders and tumors to discount as coincidence. But industry officials argue there is no direct evidence that the host of aliments is connected to their drilling operations.

“I guess what I can say about Williams is we have a very good reputation as responsible operators in this area, and we stand on that reputation,” Gray said. “We’ve received awards from both the Bureau of Land Management and the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] for community relations and for best-management practices.”

Officials for Williams, along with several other oil and gas companies active in Garfield County, declined to participate in “Split Estate.” Democratic county commissioner Trési Houpt thanked the GVCA for presenting the film and drafting a resolution for the board’s consideration, but added more discussion is needed before a decision can be reached.

“I imagine we’ll be putting this on an agenda, probably in November, because the three of us won’t be here the next meeting, and as you know, we still need to deliberate on that, but I think this reading [of the resolution] makes a great deal of sense, so thanks for bringing that forward,” said Houpt, who has previously indicated her support for the FRAC Act.

Republican John Martin has said he thinks federal oversight is unnecessary, while Republican Mike Samson seems undecided on the issue. From a state perspective, Gov. Bill Ritter has said more study is needed before a layer of federal oversight is added, and David Neslin, head of the COGCC, has said his organization would be open to more study, but that his staff generally feels state regulations are adequate for policing hydraulic fracturing.

“[The county commissioners] have taken a lot of testimony about [the FRAC Act] from both sides, so I’ll be very interested to hear,” Gray said. “They’re grappling with some difficult issues here, and I trust them and I think they’ll come to the right decision.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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