A crowd of more than 900 packed a community oil and gas forum Tuesday night in Broomfield as Denver-based Extraction Oil and Gas company officials tried to allay fears over its plans to drill 139 wells near local neighborhoods and schools.
For months now, the project has sparked heated public comment at City Council meetings. Many residents have said they are worried about the health and environmental impacts of fracking and say they don’t trust Extraction. Council members are currently considering a five-month moratorium on oil and gas activities, but in January postponed their vote until after the forum.
The expected high turnout prompted the Council to schedule the meeting at the Broomfield 1stBank Center. Groups from both sides of the debate passed out stickers before the forum, and community rights groups stood in the lobby passing out leaflets throughout the nearly four-hour meeting. But the forum’s setup — no public comment, except in the form of cards for written questions — stifled the normally passionate crowd. Mayor Randy Ahrens warned the audience against any audible reactions and it largely abided by that rule.
Speakers included city officials, industry representatives and three Broomfield residents. Deputy city and county attorney Patricia Gilbert reminded the audience that Colorado law allows oil and gas drilling statewide and preempts local regulations that would prevent drilling. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld this law last May, when it ruled against fracking bans in both Longmont and Fort Collins. A similar ban in Broomfield was shut down in a lower court.
But the Supreme Court didn’t rule against shorter term bans like the one Broomfield is now contemplating. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently filed a lawsuit against Boulder County over its moratorium, which it recently extended to May 1.
Kevin Standbridge, deputy city and county manager, explained that Extraction, formerly Sovereign Oil, inherited Sovereign’s memo of understanding with the city and thus already has the right to drill.
Extraction representatives sought to prove to the community that their company is dedicated to health, safety and environmental protection. Engineer John Tonello emphasized the $4 million Extraction plans to spend on landscaping near drill sites, and the baseline water well testing it intends to conduct before construction begins. He also showed charts illustrating that standing near a 42-well Extraction site leads to significantly less exposure to volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s, than a typical gas station. Dr. Susan Speece of Anthem Ranch neighborhood later pointed out that the VOC’s emitted from a well site differ from those emitted from a brewery or gas station, and called for independent monitoring of this and other data.
Tonello said that Extraction’s health and safety practices are so state-of-the-art that a recent CU Boulder study linking oil and gas drilling to certain childhood cancers doesn’t apply. Comparing Extraction’s operations to those examined in the study, he said, “is like comparing a Model T to a Tesla.” These safety regulations, combined with the company’s promise to remove 42 existing wells and 76 tanks, mean that the project will actually lead to a 65 percent reduction in Broomfield’s VOC emissions, Tonello told the crowd.
Ann Marie Byers, a resident from the Wildgrass neighborhood, stressed that any such emissions reduction is likely dependent on Extraction’s use of pipelines to transport oil and gas, rather than storing it in emissions-heavy tanks — and that so far, the company has not guaranteed it would use pipelines.
“We’re pushing for that closed system, and we want to have the pipelines in place before drilling,” she said.
Laurie Anderson, president and founder of Broomfield Clean Air and Water, noted that residents of Triple Creek neighborhood in Greeley were also promised pipelines, and are still waiting for Extraction to install them, though construction has been underway for months.
Questions submitted by those in attendance also tried to pin the company down on pipelines.
“We have every intention and will install pipelines,” said Extraction’s Eric Jacobsen, VP of operations. “Pipelines will allow us to take tens of millions of trucks off the road.” As for the lack of pipelines in Triple Creek? “We have yet to produce one drop of oil there…Before we develop any oil, we’ll have a pipeline solution in place.”
Anderson and Byers also pushed for an increase in mandatory setbacks, which are currently set at 500 feet for urban areas, and for stricter requirements when it comes to “forced pooling.” Under current law, oil and gas operators can “force pool” mineral owners into selling their mineral rights if just one neighbor agrees to sell. Byers hopes to see a minimum force pooling threshold of 75 or 80 percent of mineral owners.
“What we’re asking for is a balance,” she said. “This is a property rights issue; this is not a partisan issue or a climate change issue. We can’t just give up eminent domain to corporations because they’re oil and gas.”
Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, put the responsibility to enact that minimum on state lawmakers. “We’re kind of waiting to see whether one of the [lawmakers] proposes some legislation that would require some minimal percentage,” he said.
Lepore also urged residents who own their mineral rights to negotiate their leases with oil and gas companies. “It’s a business transaction,” he said.
Broomfield City Council is expected to vote on the temporary fracking moratorium next Tuesday.
All photos by Ted Wood, The Story Group