The state of Colorado has joined a lawsuit filed by oil-and-gas companies against the city of Longmont that seeks to lift a ban on fracking passed by citizen initiative there last November.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission entered the suit last week. It’s the second lawsuit joined by the state against the northern Front Range city over limits on the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, which blasts water and chemicals into underground rock formations to free up natural gas.
Sam Schabacker, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, said he saw the move as an about-face on the part of Governor John Hickenlooper.
“Hickenlooper said in December that the state wouldn’t sue Longmont over the initiative. He seemed to respect the citizens’ will and the democratic process represented by the initiative. But now I guess he thinks it’s worth spending tax dollars to fight against it. This is consistent with his pattern of behavior. He’s been a number one cheerleader for oil and gas in the state… He’s ignored the citizens who are being impacted by fracking.”
The governor’s office did not immediately offer comment Thursday, but Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, told The Independent that the state entered the suit at the request of the Colorad Oil and Gass Association, an industry trade group.
“The COGCC did not initiate this lawsuit, or this process,” he wrote in an email. “The state’s joinder into this lawsuit was the result of a legal step initiated by COGA, which asked the court to bring COGCC into its case as a party. That said, the COGCC does believe Longmont’s ban on hydraulic fracturing is contrary to state law, and we believe clarity from the courts on this matter is important for all parties.”
Hickenlooper is a former oil-and-gas industry geologist. As governor, he has opposed local moves to regulate drilling and fracking, arguing that state law trumps local initiatives and that region-by-region patchwork regulations would hobble industry activity in the state and trample on mineral rights. Hickenlooper has celebrated fracking as a market-changing innovation that will allow natural gas, a cleaner burning fossil fuel, to wean the nation from dependence on coal as it transitions to cleaner energy resources.
Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the process of extracting it is pocking Colorado’s landscape and triggering health and economic concerns in local communities, especially as drilling encroaches on residential areas of the state.
Longmont, like most all of the towns on the northern Front Range, sits atop the Wattenberg Field, one of the largest natural-gas formations in the United States. Industry trucks shipping drilling equipment now ply the area’s roadways at a constant clip. Fracking towers and storage facilities dot farmland as well as fields abutting schoolyards and housing developments.
Some 60 percent of Longmont voters supported the initiative banning fracking within city limits last year, despite well-funded efforts by the industry to defeat the proposal. Supporters cited health concerns and fear that property values would plummet as the heavy industrial activity sprawls into neighborhoods.
Last December Hickenlooper told oil executives that the state would not sue Longmont over its fracking ban but that it would support any companies that chose to do so, according to the Longmont Times Call.
Hickenlooper also reportedly opposed attempts this year by state lawmakers to tighten regulations on fracking.
“We’re happy that the legislature has been willing to try and take action to protect citizens,” said Schabacker. “It’s not an issue that’s going away.”
Schabecker pointed to local bans and drilling moratoriums being proposed in Front Range towns, such as Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Loveland.
Fracking continues to be a public-relations challenge for the usually image-savvy Hickenlooper. He drew wide criticism for playing down water-safety concerns tied to fracking when he told a U.S. Senate committee in 2012 that fracking fluid was so safe and that, in fact, he had “sipped” it. Critics said that the fluid he sipped was likely a version much more benign than versions most commonly used in the field.
During last year’s heated campaigns in Longmont around the anti-fracking ballot initiative, Hickenlooper experienced perhaps one of the worst cases of bad political “optics” in his decade or so of public life. He had traveled to Longmont to talk about the proposed ban with oil-and-gas executives and members of the business community. He met with them at a bank office near the center of town. Protesters gathered and chanted anti-fracking slogans below the windows, urging the Governor to come speak with the citizens outside. But the Governor seemed at a loss after the meeting as he exited the building. He moved tentatively through the throng of protesters and said nothing before climbing into the backseat of an idling SUV. Howls went up and the protesters looked around at one another, mouths hanging open, as the vehicle drove away slowly at first among the crowd and then darted away into the night toward Denver.