Tangle of issues raised by fracking task force screams out for master plan

RIFLE, Colo. — By some accounts, western Colorado could be the land of milk and honey thanks to oil and gas drilling — a place where fracking causes no harm, but helps communities blossom under the benign stewardship of the fossil fuel industry — if only state and federal regulators could stay away.

At least that was the picture presented by fossil fuel industry boosters as the oil and gas task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper started a two-day meeting in Rifle. More regulations aren’t needed because, “Heck, when something goes wrong, we just pick up the phone and call the coal mining company, and they hustle on over to help us,” one industry shill told the 19-member panel.

The task force was created this past summer to avert a voter and court showdown over fracking bans in Front Range communities. The task force mission is to develop specific recommendations to address the vexing question of who regulates and who should regulate oil and gas drilling — local governments or the state?

The fossil fuel industry’s support campaign during the public comment session may have been impressive as orchestrated PR, but it didn’t really offer much in the way of substantive input to the task force. The industry’s main message seemed to be, “Leave us alone, we’re doing just fine without any new regulations.”

The campaign extended to social media, where several industry front groups pushed a #WestSlopeWay hashtag themed around vague feel-good generalities like neighborly collaboration and energy independence, all wrapped in red, white and blue blanket of patriotism. Developing West Slope fossil fuel resources will make sure that “we remain the greatest country on Earth,” a man from Moffat County said during the evening public comment session.

hugafracker West Slope Rules

More useful comments came during the morning session, where elected lawmakers from West Slope counties gave specific recommendations. First and foremost, they emphasized the differences between regulating fracking in and near densely populated Front Range communities and doing so in the sparsely populated rural reaches of western Colorado. They cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach.

None of the elected commissioners from Delta, Mesa, Garfield and Routt counties who spoke said they thought new regulations are needed. More must be done, they said, to make good use of existing land use authority, beefing up enforcement of existing regulations by adding staff at the state level.

But there are a few tools that could help communities on both sides of the Continental Divide, said Tresi Houpt, a former Garfield County commissioner and former member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission who often clashed with the oil and gas industry.

“The biggest thing might be to give local governments the ability to adopt rules that are stricter than state rules if they want to,” Houpt said, getting to the core of the debate over local control.

“The second tool, and this is hard for people to get their arms around, is that local governments should be allowed to identify areas that are not appropriate for drilling at all,” she said, adding that modern directional drilling technologies enable fossil fuel companies to avoid many unwanted impacts near towns or ranches.

Drilling Camelot?

Following input from local governments and a few technical panels, the task force held a two-hour public comment session that was all but dominated by pro-fracking speakers, with only a few lone voices warning of health and environmental impacts.

The overwhelming show of support wasn’t surprising, considering that the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association was holding one of its regular meetings in the same building, right next door to the task force meeting. That translated to scores of energy industry workers signing up for the two-minute public comment slots.

It was not always easy to reconcile the mixed messages. At times, pro-fracking speakers emphasized how the industry supports thousands of jobs and businesses in the vibrant West Slope economy; at other times, fossil fuel supporters portrayed the West Slope economy as teetering on the brink of collapse, still writhing in the grip of the great 2008 recession.

“One third of our population works in the energy industry,” said Tom Rutledge, referring to his home town of Rangely, population 2,433. “We’re heavily dependent on the stability of industry … but it seems like we’re continually struggling against devastating regulations,” Rutledge said during the evening public comment session, practically begging for more fossil fuel development.

A few voices advocated for stronger local control over fracking, including town trustees from Carbondale, who said that current decision makers have an obligation to future generations. Citizen groups from the Grand Junction area, concerned about air quality impacts from proposed new drilling operations on the outskirts of town, and residents of the agricultural North Fork Valley near Paonia said they don’t want any drilling at all.

Other people living near oil and gas drilling operations expressed concerns about piecemeal permitting that doesn’t address the cumulative impacts of multiple wells operating within a relatively small footprint.

End Game

The wide ranging comments point to challenges that lie ahead for the task force, mandated to finish its work by February 2015. Local governments in different parts of the state voice such varied concerns that any one piece of legislation is likely to fail to adequately address them all. The industry wants consistency and regulatory certainty, while conservation and citizen groups want better protection of the environment and public health.

Along with any recommendations for new laws or regulations the task force may offer up, the tangle of issues practically screams out for a more comprehensive plan — an energy master-plan for the state with varying regional rules focused on an orderly development of fossil fuel resources and include the inevitable long-term transition away from oil and gas.

Such a master planning process, in theory, would include a climate impact component, dealing honestly with the way our energy choices fit into emerging national and global goals for reducing greenhouse gases to avert a climate catastrophe. Even though that type of planning is anathema to the fossil fuel industry, which prefers the status quo, it could benefit energy companies in the long run by giving them certainty.

Master planning could also address the boom-bust economic cycle that has plagued West Slope communities, and the state generally, since the mining days. A long-term plan might help Colorado better prepare for the day when fossil fuel prices plunge, or when the country takes its final steps in the transition to a non-carbon economy.

He writes about energy and the environment while wandering the Colorado Rockies. He's instagram crazy, a digital-era mountain sickness. bberwyn@comcast.net | @bberwyn | Instagram