Longmont ballot initiative fuels debate over fracking

Longmont residents this November will vote on whether or not to ban within city limits the oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking.

Supporters of the anti-drilling initiative for the city submitted more than 8,000 signatures last month to land the proposal on the ballot. Sam Schabacker, spokesman for Food and Water Watch, one of the main groups backing the proposal, told the Colorado Independent that at least 6,600 of the signatures were accepted by the city clerk as valid last week, well above the 5,700 or so signatures required.

If the initiative passes, the northern Front Range city, perched atop the oil and gas-rich Niobrara Shale formation, would be the first city in the state to ban the controversial but increasingly common extraction practice.

“We collected those signatures in six weeks with the help of more than 100 community volunteers, people from all kinds of political backgrounds, from all age groups, from all walks of life. So we’ve seen the enthusiasm for this measure on the ground,” Schabacker said.

As Pew project Stateline reported last week, each instance of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, includes anywhere from 2 million to 12 million gallons of water. The water is mixed with chemicals and sand and blasted deep into underground rock formations to loosen trapped oil and gas. Critics say the effects of fracking on groundwater supplies are not completely understood. Fracking supporters say oil and gas companies have been employing the practice for decades and that no solid evidence linking fracking to contamination has ever come to light.

But the industry has stepped up use of the technique in recent years, opening up formerly inaccessible parts of the country to development. Bob King at the U.S. Energy Information Administration told the Independent that the industry shares the total number of oil and gas wells it drills each year but not statistics on the number of wells being fracked. King said that any well can be fracked and that from 2000 to 2010 nearly 376,000 wells were drilled across the country. Roughly 57 percent of the drilling has come since 2006. King said fracking is the the only effective way to bring up oil and gas from the dense shale formations now being worked intensely in states like Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Thom Kerr, permit manager at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told the Independent that, over the course of 2011 and 2012, the state has so far issued 3,655 permits to drill just in counties included in the the “Denver Basin play,” where the Niobrara Shale holds oil and gas created through heat and pressure– specifically Larimer, Weld, Morgan, Boulder, Adams, Arapahoe and Broomfield counties in the northeastern part of the state. That “thermogenic” section of the shale spreads out under the sparsely populated plains far north of Longmont in Colorado and under the windswept flatlands of Nebraska and Wyoming.

Longmont, a Boulder County city that sits on the western border of Weld County, has been close to the center of the activity as it has increased over the course of the last decade. In just the last two years, Colorado has issued 3,296 permits to companies looking to drill in Weld County. That number dwarfs the number issued for any other county in the state, the nearest being Garfield County on the western slope, which saw 1,888 permits issued in that time. (See COGCC report (pdf), page 17.)

The fracking boom has increased the country’s natural gas supplies enormously but, as drilling moves closer and closer to residential areas, it has also sounded alarms among community and environmental groups.

The Longmont initiative — a charter amendment called the “Longmont Public Health, Safety and Wellness Act” — has drawn attention well beyond city limits for the way it underlines the larger war being fought between local communities and the state to control oil and gas industry regulation and burgeoning fracking activity here.

Indeed, Longmont is one of Colorado’s many home rule cities, where greater local authority is prized by residents and protected by the state constitution.

What’s more, the ballot initiative comes after the Longmont City Council last month passed amendments to its own 12-year-old oil-and-gas regulations and drew a lawsuit from the state just days after the fact. Representatives of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission argued that it was the state’s responsibility to establish regulations governing oil and gas activity and to create a relatively smooth permitting process that a patchwork of local regulations would undermine.

Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, a former oil-and-gas industry geologist who opposes local regulations and who has worked to ease public concerns about fracking, told attendees at an energy conference in Denver on Wednesday that the state is determined to overturn the Longmont regulations and halt any similar moves the Longmont regulations might spur among other Colorado communities.

“We want to get to the point that we can convince Longmont there is sufficient flexibility in state rules in meeting the needs of local communities,” the Denver Post quoted Hickenlooper as saying. “[T]his is one case where there has to be a limit.”

The amended regulations (pdf) were developed by the City Council over the course of the last year with input from citizens, oil and gas operators and state regulators. They limit the number of wells that can be drilled within the city, ban on-site “open pit” storage of fracking fluid waste, “outline” a water-quality monitoring program and increase the distance that must separate well sites from buildings. The state presently requires setbacks of 350 feet. The Longmont rules would establish minimum setbacks of 750 feet.

Conservationists have been urging state authorities without success to extend setbacks to 1,000 feet from residences and 1,500 feet from buildings that house more vulnerable populations, such as schools and hospitals.

The amended regulations exempt wells that already exist within the city from the new stiffer rules regarding setbacks, and they provide for wider exemptions from much of the rules if a company can argue successfully at a public hearing that “compliance shall result in an operational conflict with the state statutory and regulatory scheme.”

Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs told the Post he is determined to defend the new regulations in court. Longmont Public Information Officer Rigo Leal told the Independent that the city’s motion for an extension in the case won approval this week.

Schabacker, however, dismissed the new regulations as a half measure designed less to limit drilling and more to “derail the initiative process.” He points to a map that shows where drilling could take place in Longmont based on present state regulations. The fracking “red zone” that bleeds across the map abuts schoolyards and parks and golf courses.

“The [initiative] is about the constitutional right of the citizens of Longmont to decide for themselves how best to protect our health and safety and our property values,” he said.

Given the size and richness of the Niobrara formation, Schabacker questioned why the state would begrudge citizens the right to fence off relatively small municipal land areas from drilling and the industrial traffic and construction that accompanies it.

He also dismissed the idea being pushed by oil and gas industry supporters that any dip in real estate values caused by operations would be offset by the creation of oil-and-gas industry jobs and the alleged lower gas prices that might come at the pump as a result of drilling within the city.

“The oil companies will make money while driving our property values down by drilling next to our homes and schools,” he said. “We want to keep Longmont a great place to live. This is moms and nurses and retirees standing up to the oil and gas companies.”

Eric Brown, spokesman for the governor’s office, told the Independent that the governor has yet to weigh in on the Longmont ballot initiative and the precedent it might set for other Colorado communities.

Schabacker said that establishing that kind of precedent was “part of the reason [supporters] are excited about the initiative.”

“We think it will be a model for other communities to step up and establish high-quality local control and determine what happens in their neighborhoods.”

[Image via Flickr by Chiot’s Run ]

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