Fracking the Colorado Myth

When energy exploration collides with nature, what’s a recession-torn Western town to do?

In the shadows of the Rocky Mountain foothills, the St. Vrain Creek meanders eight miles east to Sandstone Ranch. Bike and pedestrian paths wind past lush parks, the county fairgrounds, wildlife habitats and ballfields. Here, less than 20 miles from downtown Boulder, all is serene—and quintessentially Colorado.

But tension lies beneath the surface. Tension and natural gas.

TOP Operating, an oil and gas exploration and production company based in nearby Lakewood, Colo., owns the mineral rights that lie beneath Sandstone Ranch. And it plans to drill.

The proposed well, like more than 90 percent of Colorado’s wells, would be drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The method uses a mixture of water, sand and chemical agents injected into the ground at extremely high pressure. This creates fractures in the rock layers and allows the shale oil or gas to rise to the wellhead. Some say it also contaminates water supplies, poisons fish and wildlife, and destabilizes the ground itself.

Fracking was big news in 2011. In April, Time’s cover featured a black chunk of fractured shale with the words “This Rock Could Power the World.” In December, the magazine called fracking the biggest environmental story of the year. Shale oil has been dubbed fuel for the future by some and fool’s gold by others. Across the mountain West, oil and gas companies hold out the promise of job growth to struggling towns and the promise of increased revenue to cash-strapped local governments. Lease royalties, mandatory education subsidies and a growing tax base are all enticing for communities limping through the detritus of the Great Recession.

But cities have to weigh these benefits against costs both immediate and potential—environmental damage, possible health hazards and a compromised civic identity. In the West, with its longstanding—and often contradictory—mythologies of untrammeled nature and unfettered enterprise, the fracking issue incites passions and inflames politics. It shapes up as a contest between the beauty of the land and the value of the resources beneath it—and, as the oil and gas industries ramp up their efforts, it won’t be easily resolved.

• • •

Sandstone Ranch is in Longmont, Colo., which, for all its natural beauty is suffering along with the rest of the nation. The city’s hulking, gray Butterball turkey processing plant, which had been in operation on Main Street since 1950, was shuttered just after Christmas, putting 350 people out of work. On the city’s southern edge, the Twin Peaks Mall—now in foreclosure—will soon lose its Sears.

“Obviously, we’ve not had the greatest of economic news over the last couple of months for the city,” says Brien Schumacher, a senior planner in the city’s Economic Development Department.

But rather than issuing exhortations of “Drill, baby, drill!” Schumacher and the Longmont City Council are pumping the brakes on oil and gas exploration. In late December, the council issued a 120-day moratorium on drilling applications. Several other Denver bedroom communities have moved to do the same. The council cannot ban drilling, but it can make efforts to set standards for local operations. (The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulates the industry statewide.) “It’s kind of a learning experience for us,” Schumacher says, “we haven’t really had that much activity in Longmont yet until recently.” Boulder County has fewer than 800 oil wells; adjacent Weld County has more than 17,000.

• • •

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is facing new questions and drawn out and contentious meetings with city officials. What about ozone and methane buildup at fracking sites? How does the wastewater get disposed? What about groundwater contamination? What about those earthquakes in Youngstown, Ohio? Weren’t they related to drilling and storage? Misinformation—from oil and gas advocates and their opponents—abounds.

“I can only imagine—and I’m the granddaughter of a miner and I’ve worked in the oil and gas industry—how the industry must be reeling from the push-back on how this has hit them,” says Cathy Purves, the science and technical advisor for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group devoted to watershed protection.

Purves joins the voices of other conservation/protection agencies in the West in stressing that Trout Unlimited is not against oil and gas exploration. Money from the energy industry has paved roads and sent tens of thousands of children to schools. But, she says local and state governments need to be aware of the tradeoffs involved.

The biggest tradeoff is the use of one resource (water) to get at another (energy), Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs says. “Water’s our most precious resource,” he says. “We need to make sure we’re not screwing up our water. I think that’s more important than jobs and, really, the types of jobs? It’s not going to bring a lot of jobs into Longmont.”

Given time, he says, drilling technology may improve to address residents’ environmental concerns, but the industry isn’t taking the long view.

“They don’t care about 10 years from now. They don’t care about two years from now. They care about this quarter, and that’s what motivates our country is the short term.”

Of course, the myth of a pristine Colorado—Rocky Mountain fresh streams, unending blue skies and green forever forests—has always been just that. The scars on the land from Colorado’s 1859 gold rush are still visible. But it’s a myth many buy into. Last year, outdoor industries—recreation tourism, fishing, hunting, etc.—meant nearly $2 billion to the state. At the same time, oil and gas officials counter that its industry brings more than $12 billion in total labor income to the state.

In this push and pull, municipalities such as Longmont find themselves charged with finding an approach that protects the land and preserves the Colorado myth while recognizing that energy exploration is unlikely to go away.

“Rather than trying to demonize one another we’ve got to say how do we make this work,” says Neil Thagard of the Washington D.C.-based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Oil and gas development can not supersede our fish and wildlife. Both need to exist. We realize we need the energy, but we’re going to do it in a fashion that sustains fish and wildlife. How do we do that?”