In Colorado, commercials on the benefits of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) pepper the airways like political messages in the lead up to a presidential election.
An oil and gas boom over the past decade saw wells creep closer to the metropolitan areas along Colorado’s Front Range, a heavily populated area that includes Denver and Boulder, and with it, growing public anger over the extraction process. As of the latest count, the state now has approximately one active well per hundred residents, a figure not likely to go over well with the state’s environmentalists.
Starting in 2012, Front Range communities began enacting measures to stop or ban fracking – a method that injects water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to break gas free from shale deposits. The issue, and with it larger topics on state versus local control, has set-off a firestorm of controversy, activity, petition signing and political commercials. For those leading the charge to stop fracking in their neighborhoods or communities, this is primarily a local issue, but the implications could reach far beyond Colorado’s borders.
Up for Debate
Colorado is a major oil and gas producer. The Niobrara Shale formation in northeastern Colorado is thought to hold up to 2 billion barrels of oil and accounted for 81% of the state’s oil and gas production last year. Production of both oil and gas has climbed significantly in the past decade, with oil production of more than 63 million barrels least year breaking previous records. With just two refineries (in one location), Colorado produces more crude oil than it can process. And while the state is a heavy natural gas user, the EIA says that Colorado uses just ¼ of the natural gas it produces.
Last year, four communities put a moratorium on fracking (Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette), following a 2012 ban in Longmont. All lay in Colorado’s Front Range and just west of Weld County – the largest producer of oil and gas in the state – but are still within the boundaries for the Niobrara Shale (in the Denver-Julesburg basin or DJ basin).
Colorado Oil & Gas Drilling Activity
The bans inched by in some municipalities – in Broomfield the ban passed by just 20 votes– while in others, such as Boulder, it passed with an overwhelming majority (see table for details).
Local Anti-Fracking Initiatives
The initiatives didn’t go unchallenged. Three of the cities were sued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Governor John Hickenlooper threw his weight behind the suit in Longmont. Opponents to the ballot initiatives say the new laws go in direct violation of state law and often render land – prized by oil and gas companies for its mineral resources – worthless. Coloradans with drilling in their neighborhood – but not on their land – likely think the opposite is true.
Now new initiatives are underway, pushing for a statewide ballot this November to change the Colorado constitution. If passed, it would give communities the ability to choose what types of activity could happen in their territory, regardless of state law. “While many local communities have adopted community rights law throughout the country, the effort in Colorado to obtain a constitutional amendment to address hydraulic fracturing appears to be a first, ” wrote Denver-based attorney Paul Enockson in a briefing. In practice, this could outlaw fracking, or create local regulations that are stricter or in conflict with state regulations.
The local issue snowballed into a statewide issue but now money is rolling in from interested parties outside of Colorado. On the side of the local communities are groups such as Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a public interest law firm based in Pennsylvania as well as House Representative Jared Polis. On the opposing side are oil and gas companies and the Governor. (For an in-depth look at how this is affecting the democratic landscape in Colorado, read this). Recent reports show a political action committee (PAC) with the support of Noble Energy and Anadarko Petroleum raised over $2 million so far this year to fight the initiative.
The lawsuits against the three towns claim that the bans violate the state’s oil and gas conversation act: “if the proposed amendment were to pass, cities could potentially be able to create patchwork regulations that are inconsistent with state laws,” wrote Enockson. But for a state that has boldly snubbed federal law on marijuana policy, such arguments sound a bit hollow.
Still a ban – or even a moratorium – on new fracking would have devastating effects on the local oil and gas industry. Up to 95% of the wells in Colorado are completed using hydraulic fracturing technology.
A flat moratorium on fracking could have huge economic impacts on the industry and ripple effects throughout the state, according to a report released in March by the University of Colorado, Leeds School of Business. Starting in 2015, the report finds that over the first five years, the state would have 68,000 fewer jobs and make $8 billion less in gross domestic product (GDP).
The issue is far from resolved. If the initiative gets on the ballot for November, it’s likely just the first step in a long legal procedure. But just as fracking fluid breaks apart rocks, the controversial drilling technique is creating fissures in the Colorado political landscape.