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Colorado and California: Getting Gassed Together

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In the past few weeks, something truly unusual happened here in Colorado.

It wasn’t that the Arctic Vortex had taken up residence in the state.  The temperature at the North Pole, at least for a moment, was warmer than the prevailing temperatures along Colorado’s front range.

And it wasn’t that all of Denver’s politicians, bankers, and millionaires were shining up their cowboy boots and dusting off those obligatory cowboy hats in anticipation of the Denver Stock Show.  Of course, they were already a hootin’ and a hollerin’ over the fact that the Denver Post and the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, one of those gold-key and satin-sash guys who has never seen a corporate handout he didn’t support, had been successful in duping the public into rebuilding the stock show facility for a measly billion dollar price tag.

The facility is used two weeks a year for a horse, cow, and pig parade.  It is operated by a private corporation.  To disguise these inconvenient facts, the state agricultural college, Colorado State University, had gilded the handout by promising to raise another $16 million for a horse hospital at the facility.  This impressed the editorial board at the Denver Post, making it truly a multi-use facility, said they.  Still, hardly anyone in Denver owns a horse or buys oats in large quantities.  Gleaming horse hospitals do not fill the dreams of working people.

No, the BIG NEWS was that two Colorado cities told the oil boys to take a hike.  It wasn’t a complete smack down, but it was a start.

Greeley’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny an oil company, Extraction Oil and Gas, a zoning change so it could drill 22 wells and construct fracking’s usual steel armada of belching tanks, pumps, separators, and flaring towers.  Had the commission not denied the request, about 69 acres, on land that has long been dedicated to open space and surrounded on three sides by established neighborhoods and public schools, would have been converted into a park for heavy industry.

On the day of decision, about 100 people attended, many spoke.  Still, many more would have been in attendance had the hearing not been held at one in the afternoon on a workday.  The presentations were informed and passionate.   Indeed, the scientific information available on the health dangers associated with fracking is so overwhelming that only the governor, the governor’s politically appointed state public-health physician, illiterate local politicians, and the Denver Post still swing hard on the hinges of ignorance.

The commission’s vote breaks with Greeley’s monolithic support for oil and gas development. It is a classic company town, peppered with about 465 wells spewing poison on its population of about 100 thousand people.  It is threatened by literally thousands of other wells within spitting distance of city boundaries.  Indeed, an estimated 22,000 wells operate within Weld County.  Greeley is the county seat.

One of the long-term local activists, Therese Gilbert, a mother and middle-school teacher, almost in tears, told me as she left the session, “Can you believe it?  It took over 5 years, but we may have finally won one.”

Well, maybe not, the mayor and city council have agreed to review the planning commission’s unanimous 6-0 decision.  Dare they reverse it?  Sure, the mayor, Tom Norton, is an industry groupie.  Once the Republican president of the state senate, he intoned at considerable length in a committee hearing several years ago against a minor health bill on fracking.  But, then, so did the state’s public health physician.

In an interesting subtext, the mayor’s wife and the president of Northern Colorado State University—she was appointed school president by a previous governor–leased land under the university so it could be fracked by her Greeley “friends” despite the fact state law requires leases of state land to be auctioned at competitive bid.  Her friends have since sold their fracking business, Mineral Resources, to Extraction Oil and Gas, the very folks who had their zoning request turned down.  Records show that Extraction got $200 million from Wall Street venture capitalists in 2014.  Some of this money was probably used to acquire controlling interest in Mineral Resources. When oil prices were dropping like an anvil in 2015, Extraction bragged that it could still make money at $64 a barrel.  They were silent when oil bottomed out at $27 a barrel a week ago.

It remains to be seen how far friends will go to help friends when the mayor and his college-president wife weigh in, but it is clear that John Stuart Mills’ nostrum about the dangers of a tyranny of the majority, or less loftily, mob rule in a democracy, are ludicrous when it comes to describing government in Greeley, indeed throughout Colorado.  Money and access rule, it’s a very different kind of mob.

The local newspaper, the Greeley Tribune, may have helped set the table for council reversal.  Only days after the planning commission decision, the paper ran an editorial claiming the decision was class based and therefore unfair, maybe even vaguely racist.  Plenty of wells had been drilled in poorer neighborhoods, it correctly pointed out, so why shouldn’t richer neighborhoods be peppered with wells, too?  Never raised was the alternate view that fracking in any neighborhood was a threat to the constitutional guarantees of protecting public health and social wellbeing.

On the heals of the paper’s editorial came an op-ed piece from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s damage control and public relations mouthpiece in the state.  Written by Dan Haley, COGA’s new president and former head of the Denver Post’s editorial staff, it attacked Obama’s State of the Union message advocating development of wind and solar energy to save the planet.  He reminded the citizens of Greeley just how lucky they were to be living among all those belching oil well spires.  The president, said he, should have thanked the frackers, and especially the frackers in Greeley.

Some might argue Haley’s piece amounts to nothing more than a paid political announcement that wasn’t paid for, but locals insist it’s consistent with the paper’s love affair with fracking.

The Tribune, incidentally, is but one of many papers owned by a corporate conglomerate calling itself Swift Communications. Its CEO, Bill Toler, before becoming a crusading sword of the people, had been a Proctor and Gamble VP in charge of pushing Crest and Oral-B.

Surprise number two: Only days after the Greeley vote, the city of Thornton, a Denver suburb of about 125,000 people, held the last in a series of hearings to listen to citizen demands for a moratorium on fracking, including a moratorium on all pipeline construction and liquid waste disposal.  After several hours of testimony, the council recessed.  I met one of the new council members, Val Vigil, outside the chamber.  A former state representative, he volunteered that fracking was crazy, that “we were destroying Mother Earth.”

His remarks were followed several days later when the newly reelected mayor, Heidi Williams, sent off blunt letters to the state’s regulatory power structure.  The following is an excerpt from the letter to Matt Lepore, head of the COGCC, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency:

 To date, representative from agencies such as yours, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDHPE), have been woefully unengaged at these public meetings.  Many of the issues raised by the public at these meetings can only be properly addressed by independent experts…assessing…the myriad of scientific studies and findings related to the impact of oil and gas facilities on public health. …we look to you and CDHPE to…ensure that the public’s safety, health and quality of life will not be put at risk by these developments.

The City Council understands and respects the right of property owners to extract minerals.  However, we also understand that what we are talking about here is the health and well-being of our community, which, in our minds, takes precedence.

The fact that the County Commissioners for Adams County, in which Thornton is located, have scheduled a hearing in which a county-wide moratorium will be pushed by local grassroots organizations underscores the level of concern and discontent with the state of things oil and gas.

All the latest fracking news has undoubtedly stoked this festering discontent, with the rumble of daily earthquakes in Oklahoma and the Porter Ranch methane leak in the foothills of Los Angeles providing ample fresh fuel.

Interestingly, the methane leak near Porter Ranch has been deemed a state emergency by Governor Brown and, more recently, a national emergency by presidential candidate Bernie Saunders, but it has gotten a pretty much ho-hum, it-can’t-happen-here-‘cause-we-got-the-strongest-regs-in-the-nation reaction from Colorado state regulators.

Is this apparent laissez-faire attitude warranted?  Well, Colorado has 10 natural gas storage reservoirs in depleted oil fields around the state.  These fields are home to hundreds, probably thousands, of plugged and abandoned wells of varying age and integrity. (Colorado is home to roughly 48,000 abandoned wells.)  In total, the storage capacity of these depleted well fields is 50 percent greater than Porter Ranch’s, 130 billion cubic feet compared to 86 billion cf.

Two of the 10 are close to metropolitan Front Range cites and undoubtedly help serve their heating demands.  Unbeknown to most, one is in Adams County where, as mentioned earlier, local activists will be pushing for a fracking moratorium before county commissioners. The other, and larger reservoir, is in the more urbanized Arapahoe County, directly to the south. It is roughly 25 miles from the metro area.  These two have a storage capacity of 32 billion cubic feet, about a third of Porter Ranch’s.

Too, uncontrolled leaks have occurred in Colorado.  One very near the metropolitan area itself in 2000.  That reservoir, an abandoned coal mine, not a depleted oil field, was located in Jefferson County, directly upwind of Denver proper.  It is no longer used as a storage facility, but it took some time for the leak to be controlled with much finger pointing going on between the state’s COGCC and fed’s FERC over jurisdictional issues.  An uncontrolled fire occurred at the Arapahoe County facility in 2010.

And neither should the notion that the 2 front-range storage reservoirs lie down wind of Denver give people much comfort.  Along the Front Range, the winds often blow back against the mountains, particularly at night, carrying VOCs, the precursor of ozone, from the oil fields in Weld County with them.  These wind patterns are one of the reasons given to explain why the ozone readings in Boulder, southern Jefferson County, and even Rocky Mountain National Park are sometimes the highest in the state.

One aspect of the Porter Ranch disaster that’s gone underreported in Colorado is how our state’s methane leaks compare with the Ranch’s.  Surprisingly, Colorado’s annual emissions of methane into the atmosphere could be greater.  And Colorado’s are everyday, year in, year out.  Yet, they’ve never been deemed a disaster for the people living near them or for the climate.

Is this hyperbole?

Consider.  At over 1.5 trillion cubic feet of production in 2014, Colorado is the 6th largest producer of natural gas in the country.  It produces 7 times more natural gas than California.

The total volume of the leak at Porter Ranch is estimated at 84 million cubic feet, more than the green house gases emitted by 440,000 cars in a year.  From a scientific standpoint the long-term impact will be on exacerbating climate change, since methane, over the critical 10 year period has a heat trapping capacity in the atmosphere 125 times greater than CO2, 86 times over 20 years.

Using NOAA’s 2012 estimate of an oil-field methane leak rate in Weld County of 4 percent, which was derived from data gathered by aircraft, the oil industry introduces about 62 million cubic feet of  methane into the atmosphere, or the equivalent  326,000 cars, each and every year, but no crisis has been declared in Colorado.

However, if we use Cornell Professor Robert Howarth’s more recent estimate of a 12 percent leakage rate from oil and gas development, we get a number, 186 million cubic feet, which is over twice the releases so far from the Porter Ranch disaster.  This is the equivalent of the green house gasses produced by almost a third of all cars registered in Colorado.

One last point: In a recent interview on public radio’s Living on Earth, Dr Anthony Ingraffea stated that for methane to be better for the climate than coal, the leak rate would have to be less than 3 percent.  At 12 percent it is an unmitigated disaster.  Methane is not a bridge fuel.  It is a beacon on the road to extinction.

But who’s sounding the alarm? Who’s declaring an emergency?

Not the Denver Post.  It’s doing a rain dance for the industry’s quick recovery, as is the Denver Chamber of Commerce.  It’s always about jobs and money with them, never about health, personal or planetary.  The legislature, despite its new, self-awarded 30 percent salary increase, will not take on the climate crisis.  They can argue they didn’t award themselves thaaaat much of a pay increase.

No, it will have to be the people, and they are making small advances, one gnat at a time, but restlessness is becoming more and more pronounced.  Can large-scale civil disobedience be far behind?

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net

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