[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he oil and gas industry suffered a major defeat in one of the most influential states of the union this week when New York officials decided to ban hydraulic fracturing across the state, including in the rural southern reaches, which sit atop the same gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation that has transformed neighboring Pennsylvania into boomtime drilling country over the past half decade.
The news has rippled across the country and splashed into oil-and-gas stronghold Colorado, where tensions around drilling have run high and higher in recent years and where responses to the New York ban predictably see-saw between those who discount it as irrelevant and those who celebrate it as a sign of a cleaner-energy future.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been dogged by an expanding, high-profile anti-fracking movement, had been dancing around the question of a ban for years. But this week all the cards appeared to fall into place to make it possible for him to brush off the nearly unlimited resources the drilling industry has to spend and the powerful messaging machinery it operates: Cuomo had won reelection, the state economy had shaded brighter, legal precedent supporting a ban had piled up, and state researchers as if on cue delivered a report years in the offing that tipped the scales.
Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said that fracking — the method virtually synonymous with all oil and gas drilling today in which a mix of water, sand and chemicals are blasted deep into the earth to break up rock and release minerals — could contaminate the air and water and generally posed too many uncertain risks to public health and safety.
News of the ban drew groans from industry lawyers and spokespeople who said Cuomo had been swayed by bad research and activist hyperbole. It was another if more dramatic loss in a long line of losses for the industry in the state. Drilling supporters suggested that, at least for now, the industry was “writing off New York as being influenced by extremists,” as Thomas West, an Albany lawyer who represents landowners and drillers, put it.
But, of course, the war over fracking doesn’t stop at the border of the Empire State. The New York ban is the kind of first-round underdog victory for the environmental and new-energy movement that the drilling industry has fought intensely to head off for years, precisely for the way it is already reverberating across the continent, raising expectations and fueling anti-fracking movement momentum.
None of this was lost on Coloradans, where extraction has boomed over the last five years, bringing fracking from the relatively wide-open Western Slope into Front Range communities — that is, from isolated mountainsides and grand valleys to suburban back yards and school grounds. The result has been a series of increasingly intense political and legal battles over state regulation, local zoning power and municipal fracking bans.
“Colorado is not New York and every state has to find the approach to energy development that makes sense for their communities,” Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told the Independent in an email. The governor has just won reelection, the Colorado economy has shaded brighter over the last two years and some health studies are beginning to raise alarms about fracking here. But Hickenlooper is a former oil and gas geologist who has always seen natural gas as a vital bridge fuel to the clean-energy future. He has fought democratically passed municipal bans in court and won. Indeed, legal precedent here is mostly running away from the power to ban drilling anywhere in the state. Partly in response to election-year intra-party squabbling, Hickenlooper established a task force to weigh citizen and industry concerns and develop comprise proposals to present to lawmakers in the new year.
“Colorado is fortunate to have an abundance of energy resources and a long history of environmentally responsible energy development,” Hickenlooper continued. “The work of our task force will ensure we continue to develop in a way that is safe for our residents, supports jobs and the economy, respects private property rights and protects our environment.”
B.J. Nikkel, a Republican former state representative and director of the pro-drilling group Loveland Energy Action Project, said Coloradans shouldn’t be looking to New York for lessons on fracking. In fact, it’s the opposite, she said.
“Gov. Cuomo should have looked to Colorado, as many other states across the nation have, for a few lessons in how to work with people sharing different points of view on energy development,” she wrote in an email. “Instead, [he shut down] a 70-year-old industry there, which will most surely affect many peoples’ lives. Colorado’s model allow for significant power and balanced input locally… [We have] a legislature and governor who have worked hard to provide commonsense balance for the overall safety and good of the people of our state.”
Jon Haubert, spokesman for industry lobby group Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development or CRED, put it even more flatly. “There isn’t much for Coloradans to take away from Gov. Cuomo’s decision as it has no relevance here – different states make different laws and decisions all the time. In Colorado, when these bans or moratoriums on fracking have been challenged in court, they consistently get overturned and deemed illegal.”
The East and the West
It would be hard to successfully argue against that point.
New York lawmakers passed a statewide moratorium on fracking in 2010, with a 48 to 9 margin in the state Senate, an unimaginable turn of events in Colorado, which that year was gripped by Tea Party politics and saw candidates across the state lamenting the scourge of energy-efficient light bulbs and low-flow toilets. “Haven’t you just come to hate the word ‘green,’” said former University of Colorado Regent and congressional candidate Tom Lucero that year at a Tea Party rally in Weld County, which is now covered in thousands of active oil and gas wells.
Last year, New York was home to nearly 13,000 active wells. This year, Colorado is home to nearly 53,000 active wells. New York was a significant center of oil production in the 19th century but hasn’t been a genuine field of play for the industry for decades. Colorado now produces 1 of every 50 barrels of U.S. oil as well as large percentages of the country’s natural gas output.
Pressure and Currency
Nevertheless, the anti-fracking, mostly grassroots movement here is growing and has enjoyed major successes. Five Front Range cities over recent election cycles have passed moratoriums. Front Range Democratic Congressman Jared Polis spearheaded a well-funded ballot initiative effort last year that brought greater attention to the movement for local control and that pushed General Assembly lawmakers and Hickenlooper to acknowledge the growing level of dissatisfaction among citizens with the regulatory status quo in a state where the internationally renown outdoor recreation industry now brings in revenues and sustains employment beyond those generated by the boom-and-bust drilling industry.
In that context, the New York ban is looms large and is bound to ratchet up pressure on the governor.
“While the state of New York has concluded the risks are too great to allow fracking at all, in Colorado homeowners aren’t even allowed to stop oil and gas companies from drilling on their own property, despite being only a few hundred feet from their home or school,” Polis emailed The Independent. “I hope rather than banning it as a state, we let each homeowner and community decide if they want fracking or not.”
But activists on the ground in the gas patch see an opening for bold moves.
“The decision to ban fracking is a monumental victory for the nationwide movement,” Sam Schabacker, Mountain West Region Director at Food and Water Watch, told The Independent. “It’s time for Governor Hickenlooper to stop ignoring the science that clearly shows fracking is inherently unsafe. We strongly urge him to be a leader and ban fracking in Colorado.”
Environmental activist and consultant Gary Wockner was unabashedly buoyed by the news of full New York state ban.
“Colorado should also ban fracking, because it pollutes our air, water, landscapes, and threatens our property values, climate, and democracy. Colorado Democrats need to eject the oil and gas industry from the Party, and the state needs to race forward with a renewable energy economy focusing on solar and wind.
“Cuomo should consider a run for President in 2016,” he added.
After Republicans won control of the Colorado Senate in November, the already low expectations many politics-observers held for the governor’s fracking task force fell further. The New York fracking ban may reset the bar. The specter of continued warring and of victories for the anti-fracking movement, small and large, on the ground and of the mind, may win the task force greater currency with the industry and its lobbyists, who line the halls at the capitol in Denver.