BOULDER — Residents in towns sited in a line that stretches just north of Denver to just south of Wyoming, through a 250-square-mile gas field covered with wells like a picnic blanket overrun by ants, voted Tuesday to impose moratoriums and an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing within city limits.
Boulder extended for five additional years its current suspension. Fort Collins put in place its first five-year moratorium and Lafayette voted to ban fracking within city limits altogether. None of those votes were even close. The outcome of the vote on a five-year moratorium in Broomfield, a fairly conservative Denver exurb, has been left hanging, unofficial tallies today stuck separated by 13 votes: 10253 for and 10266 against the proposed suspension on drilling. There are reportedly votes left to count, but the clerk’s office is also reportedly weighing a recount, whichever way the final tally falls.
“This is a powerful message sent to the state and to Governor Hickenlooper,” said Sam Schabacker, Mountain West regional director at Food and Water Watch. “Residents see the oil and gas industry as suspect and they have learned they can’t rely on lawmakers to stand up to the industry with them.”
Schabacker, who lives in Denver now, grew up in Longmont, which passed a ban on fracking last November. That ban almost immediately drew a lawsuit from the gas industry supported by the Democratic Hickenlooper Administration. The governor has said it’s the state’s responsibility to set uniform rules so the industry won’t be tangled in a confusing patchwork of local regulations. But it’s boom-time for drillers in Colorado and the activity in the Wattenberg field here is frenzied, the promise of riches thick in the air.
Schabacker says residents are fed up and can’t wait for Hickenlooper to act. He says the governor, a former oil-industry geologist who touts natural gas as a clean-burning bridge fuel to a renewable energy future, has turned off natural constituencies in these progressive and moderate towns by siding time and again with the drillers over the people.
“These votes come from a region of the state where he’ll be hoping to win support next year when he’s up for reelection. Yet he continues to be the darling of oil and gas,” he said.
It’s unclear which of the new laws will draw legal action and how soon.
The industry spent relatively enormous sums to defeat the anti-fracking measures, by some counts outspending the citizen opposition by 4 to 1 and doling out the kind of money usually reserved for statewide races. The last report in Boulder put industry political spending here at $600,000.
The votes in these towns come in response to the way drillers have moved into the region’s urban areas, setting up high-traffic well pads just a stone’s throw from homes, schools and scenic preserves. Residents see officials at all levels of government repeatedly failing to address what they see as real threats to their health, safety and property values. Meantime, the truck convoys continue to pass at a regular clip along formerly sleepy neighborhood roads. Drilling starts and doesn’t stop for months at a time. Lights, noise, fumes and flares throw shadows on bedroom walls, foul the air and rattle the windows day and night.
Cliff Wilmeng, one of the organizers with East Boulder County United, the group that spearheaded the Lafayette vote, said government officials have a choice: they can listen to the residents of the state or escalate the simmering conflict over drilling.
“We did enormous outreach for this. Our neighbors, people here, we don’t buy into the idea that corporate interests must trump public health and local control. If they keep turning us away, suing us, they will transform what is now an environmental movement into a civil rights movement.
“It’s the paradigm that fuels all civil rights movements,” he said. “It will become increasingly clear to larger numbers of people that oil and gas drilling is benefitting the few at the expense of the many. People here won’t believe people in power have their interests and futures in mind. That proposition is already questionable at best.”
Laura Fronckiewicz, a member of Our Broomfield, the resident-group behind the fracking opposition there still waiting for news from the county clerk, suggested the turn from environmental rights to civil rights has already been made.
“The Colorado Oil and Gas Association poured $244,000 into beating us at this,” she said. “Then there were commercials and mailers paid for by random groups, like Coloradans for Responsible Energy, or whatever. But we were just a few people, sitting around a table, saying Did you see this happening in your neighborhood? What is this?
“We don’t feel like we’re being protected,” she said. “What does it look like to have a governor running around suing citizens who want their water and property protected?
“You tell me, it doesn’t take a huge leap: Someone is looking to buy a house. There’s one with a drilling rig right next to it and there’s one without a rig. Which home are you gonna buy?”
Fronckiewicz says awareness will only spread — that in effect, the news is out on fracking. That’s what the vote in Broomfield shows, she said, win or lose.
“So many people don’t even know they’re being fracked. People have a right to know what’s going on and a right to decide what they want to happen in their towns. People don’t pay a whole lot of attention to politics, but we did a helluva job educating people on this. In March, when we started, people didn’t know. Now they do. That’s the first step to winning the battle, the first step to winning the war.”
[ Image of Larimer County fracking by Julie Rideout. “I’m sure Gene never dreamed when he bought this house years ago that one day the view out his back window would include this, but it went up this week 400 feet from his house.”]