Greeley Weighs Proposal to Add More Fracking Wells Within City Limits

Today in Greeley, the city at the heart of Colorado’s Front Range “frack country,” a seven-member planning commission will consider a proposal by oil-and-gas company Synergy to add three more well-drilling facilities “and related equipment” to a site already being drilled in a scenic residential neighborhood roughly three miles from the city center. Synergy is one of the companies working the booming business in natural-gas extraction in the Wattenberg Field, which stretches under most of north-east Colorado. The boom is mostly the product of the effectiveness of hydraulic fracturing, the extraction technique where millions of gallons of frack fluid — a mixture of water, chemicals and sand — is blasted deep into the earth to free trapped gas.

In the last few years, residents in cities across the region have raised concerns about the dangers the heavy-industrial activity might pose to public health as it encroaches on residential areas and how it may also be diminishing above-ground real estate values. In the last twelve months, Front Range cities like Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Longmont and Loveland have passed drilling bans and moratoriums, at least until more research is concluded on the effects fracking is visiting on the populations. The movement to limit drilling has met fierce resistance from oil and gas companies. For now, there is no ban or moratorium in Greeley. Indeed, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in May approved proposals to drill more than a hundred new wells within Greeley city limits.

Greeley’s planning commission is tasked with considering zoning and development questions but it also represents residents on matters of air-quality and natural-resource protection. There are now thousands of gas wells being worked all around the traditionally agricultural town in Weld County. Maps of area wells show Greeley as a shrinking “donut hole” surrounded by drilling.

Greeley as ‘frack country donut hole’ in a well-tracking map at Click to enlarge.

The planning commission meeting today will hear from citizens and representatives of Synergy. One of the citizens scheduled to testify is Sara Barwinski. She thinks there’s already enough drilling going on in the neighborhood where she lives and where Synergy is proposing to expand its operations.

“This isn’t about being for or against oil and gas,” she told The Independent. “There’s already drilling going on here. There are six vertical wells on the site… But there’s also a school, a running track, houses, apartments. It’s a beautiful area. There’s a wetlands adjacent, a marsh that’s a bird habitat. There’s a hawk’s nest. I’m just asking for balance.”

Barwinski will likely only have three minutes to testify before the commission today. She wrote an op-ed scheduled to be excerpted in the Greeley Tribune today, where she develops her views more fully. She also sent the piece to The Independent, where we have the (unlimited) space to print it in full.

Greeley: Expected or Unexpected?
by Sara Barwinski

I’ve only lived in Greeley for a year and a half and I’ve fallen in love with the town. Our size and scale suit me — nothing is too far away and it has all the services I need close at hand. I love the many days of sunshine and low humidity. I love the parks and green spaces, especially the Sheep Draw and Poudre Trails. I love the mountains that are so close but just far enough away to enjoy both a full view of the range and lower housing prices. I already love many of the people who have hearts as big as our lovely high plains. I love square dancing with the Merry Mixers, and the Stampede and the County Fair and the Chautauqua, and our libraries. And are the odors getting better or am I just getting used to them? Yup, I’ve come to love my new home town!

I have watched with interest the unfolding of the public relations campaign “Greeley, Unexpected.” I realized they were on to something— Greeley has a self-image problem and it is not just about the occasional smells. Everywhere I go I meet people who are cynical and dispirited about “the little guy” not being able to make a difference in this town. There is a frustration with an entrenched and unresponsive power structure that seems to be on the wrong side of many issues that impact our lives.

Nowhere has that frustration been greater than with the perception that the city and county are in the back pocket of the oil and gas industry: Selling water to high-paying energy companies while farmer’s fields are parched by drought; pushing large, multi-well drill pads and tanks into high residential areas; opposing legislation to find out the health impacts of drilling on the front range; allowing heavy oil and gas truck traffic to tear up our roads. People have come to “expect” that their “public servants” will sell them out. This perception also impacts how others outside Greeley and Weld County view us. “Greedy Greeley” is the place that allows their citizens to be guinea pigs in an unprecedented push to “drill baby drill” next to schools and homes. Fear of “becoming like Greeley”, motivates other municipalities to pass moratoriums.

Being a newcomer, I wondered if it really could be as bad as everyone thinks. My faith makes me ever hopeful that change can happen and always on the look-out for the “unexpected.” I believe that dialogue can happen, that there are good people in oil and gas who are trying to make the industry better and that most public elected officials serve because they believe in the common good. When I got the notice to expand drilling within 500 feet of my home I got a chance to test my faith and those beliefs, and I experienced both the “expected” and “unexpected” Greeley first hand.

The Planning Commission had a public hearing on July 9 on a plan that would ultimately allow 18 wellheads, 25 oil tanks, 7 water tanks and 17 separators to be crammed on a 12.55 acre site. This site is in a high residential area, adjacent to Northridge High School and sits on a ridge that slopes directly into the Sheep Draw watershed, open space and trail. It also means that there would be 32 wells that are operating or approved to operate in West Greeley within a 1/2 mile radius. A study conducted over three years by the Colorado School of Public Health concluded that fracking can contribute to “acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites, with those living with ½ mile facing greater health risks.”

On top of this Greeley already has 427 wells, with 200 more in the works. Ultimately the city anticipates that 1,605 wells will be drilled in Greeley to add to the 20,128 in surrounding Weld County. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) admit that we don’t know what is safe or not and we need further study about the health impacts of oil and gas toxic emissions. No other municipality in Colorado is subjecting their citizens to the unknown impacts of this concentration of drilling within city limits.

While the drilling plan near my home meets the minimum setback requirements by Greeley’s development codes, it flunks all of the setback requirements that go into effect for new applications filed with COGCC as of August 1. It is too close to homes, too close to the right of way, too close to the school and much too close to that gem of a city resource, the Sheep Draw Trail, which is due to connect with the Poudre Trail in 2014. Other municipalities are rushing to protect such environmental investments by asking the State to designate them “Outside Activity Areas” requiring a minimum 350 ft. setback. Greeley officials want to approve a zero setback and have offered to let the energy company plant trees on public land to hide this huge fracking operation. But don’t worry, declares the Commission’s Planning Summary; thanks to these trees, the 12 new horizontal wells and the tank batteries and equipment that go with them will actually “enhance the Sheep Draw Open Space.”

At the hearing the expected and unexpected collided. Everyone had warned me that I should “expect” rude treatment and that I would not be allowed to present my thoroughly researched testimony. I didn’t want to believe it. I was prepared and prayed-up. Surely the Commissioners would see that citizen backlash that gives rise to moratorium talk was created by decisions that have moved far beyond balanced development. Maybe they could use this situation in my backyard to restore some confidence in a process that seems to take place behind closed doors? And why, even if they disagreed with what I had to say, would they not want to at least pretend to value citizen participation?

The “expected” Greeley emerged at the outset of the hearing. After having listened to over 45 minutes of testimony from city staff and the operator, I had my chance at bat. I have testified at literally 100’s of public hearings at the municipal, state and federal level over the past 30 years, and I have never seen such an obvious attempt to create a hostile environment towards public input.

Not only was there a three-minute time limit imposed on testimony, the tone clearly communicated that citizen participation was being tolerated rather than welcomed. When I was cut off minutes into my presentation, I asked for and was denied an extension. My husband then offered to yield his time so that I could continue. He was curtly refused. But then, the “unexpected” happened — and because of it I have hope for my newly adopted hometown.

My husband started reading my testimony from where I left off. When he was cut off, a person I had met just the night before came up and continued on. Like a scene from a movie, my testimony was passed like a baton from citizen to citizen and I heard my words come out of the mouths of strangers, who gave up their time so a more detailed, developed argument could reach the ears of the commission. So beautiful—so humbling—so “unexpected.”

And the Planning Commission? They voted 4-3 to continue the public hearing on July 23 in order to allow Commissioners time to digest the comments and to hear more testimony. “Unexpected!” “Greeley Unexpected” is alive and well in active citizens and public officials who want to serve the people; only time will tell if we have enough of both to help Greeley turn a corner to a better future. Greeley Expected or Unexpected? It might just depend on you.

Sara Barwinski, ACSW, has a Masters in Social Work and in Systematic Theology, and was a policy analyst and registered lobbyist in Missouri. She taught Legislative and Regulatory Processes at Washington University and Community Development, Planning and Organizing at St. Louis University. In Greeley, she is a happy pastor’s wife and proud mom and grandma.