Another Crazy Day in the Colorado Fracking Wars

Yesterday’s Denver Post contained a report on a town meeting in Erie, Colorado.  A rapidly growing bedroom community of Denver, it has a population of around 18,000 people. The town meeting, like many in this state, was about fracking and citizen unease concerning its impacts on their health.

The event was covered by the Post’s business reporter, Mark Jaffe.  Jaffe is a pale fellow.  He writes like he’s picking words out of alphabet soup.  But what would you expect from a newspaper owned by a Wall Street hedge fund?   His report from Erie on the city’s attempts to deal with fracking is little short of whitewash.  I’m not sure he was even there.  I didn’t see him.

Consistently featureless, essentially sterile, he writes as if he were describing a forest on Mars.  I know he shows up for Governor Hickenlooper’s “Blue Ribbon” Fracking Task Force meetings. It was established so that citizens and oil companies could meet and agree on how the industry could efficaciously frack citizen backyards and school grounds. I see Jaffe at these ‘blue ribbon” events as designated representative of the cheerleading Post, but he always seems to disappear before the public has a chance to comment on the sacredness of their backyards. Those usually occur at the dinner hour.  They generally concern  health impacts, as they did two evenings ago.

If there was anything noteworthy in the Erie proceedings it was the bewildering recitation from Mayor Pro Tem Mark Gruber.  He bragged about how good a negotiator he was, and then decided they shouldn’t negotiate in the present case from the advantage of a moratorium with Encana and Anadarko because the city might lose.  Negotiating from a point of weakness is always an advantage intoned he, pointing repeatedly to how he had helped outfox nearby Broomfield in bringing a box store to Erie.  But negotiations over oil wells in your backyard are quite another thing.  He preened over the fact that they were asking for a 1000-foot setback at Vista Point, twice the distance required by state regulations.  This would be 250 feet more distant than the recently completed well, the drilling of which created noise levels of 100 decibels in the Vista Point neighborhoods, causing several weeks of sleepless nights for residents.  Some residents moved out to escape the incessant rumble.  One resident said the ground vibrations and noise caused his child to wake up repeatedly, whimpering he was being pursued by monsters.

Sound at 100 decibels is apparently equivalent to the noise of a gas lawn mower at 3 feet.  Imagine enduring that without cessation for weeks on end.  At 120 decibels the human brain registers pain.   Any good sound engineer could have told Gruber how much sound dissipation would result by moving the drilling back 250 feet, but no need, he proclaimed victory.  Of course, he ignored the studies that have been done in Colorado and elsewhere that show dangerous health impacts from airborne toxins at distances greater than one-half mile.

Gruber went on to extol the fact that Matt Lepore, the head of COGCC, the state agency responsible for regulating all matters oil and gas, had been sent there by the Governor to address the trustees.  Lepore, doing a soft shoe he’s perfected for performances before the Governor’s Fracking Task Force, wasted no time in reciting the same old razzle-dazzle that has endeared him to the those task force members who would like to think heavy, industrial oil and gas drilling and production in cities and towns can be made compatible with life.  He said, sure, mistakes had been made.  They were slow to react because they always get a lot of complaints from citizens.  Apparently, some are not to be taken too seriously.  When the COGCC did appear, after weeks of complaints, for the last four days of drilling, they couldn’t stop the drilling or the noise.  To stop the drilling would have been too dangerous, said he.  I thought at first he might have been reciting from the Masters and Johnson playbook, but what he apparently meant was it would have been dangerous for Encana, never specifying whether he was talking about the workers or the company’s balance sheet.  He also said that he could not fine Encana for their weeks of assault on the citizens of Erie, that state regulations didn’t allow it.  These are also the rules that several trustees represented as the best in the nation, the state’s shibboleth for the truly weak minded.  Mayor Pro Tem Gruber thanked him for bringing the good news to Erie.

Like what has become his almost obligatory invocation before each convening of the Governor’s Fracking Task Force, Lepore basically asserted that if leaders at every level of government will just give him time to perform his dance, his razzle-dazzle, the citizens need not worry, he will protect them.  This recitation, an obvious and thinly veiled plea for stasis, leaves the roughly 45 engineers and inspectors and one lawyer-leader at the COGCC in charge of all issues in the state as they relate to oil development and local populations.  As it now stands, the state insists the oil boys have a right to move into any citizen’s backyard, next to any school or open space, because it is in the state’s interest to encourage oil and gas development.  This is overreach on a gargantuan scale.  Our state Constitution says clearly that on matters of local concern, local governments have the superior power.  Moreover, even when the issue is of mixed concern, the local interest and solution is superior if the local impact is potentially greater.

Erie’s incorporated boundaries come to about 17 square miles.  That is one hundredth of one percent of the total landmass of a state measuring 104,000 square miles, much of it underlain by mineral bearing shales. What Erie does in support of its citizens should be of de minimis interest to the state. Indeed if all the cities in the state decided they didn’t want oil rigs in their backyards, that would constitute less than 2 percent of the state’s total landmass.

Even the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Act says that the state is to foster oil and gas development in a “responsible, balanced” way…. consistent with protection of the public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”  

These facts are lost on Mr Gruber, for it was his assessment state law is rigged for oil and gas.  He advocated speedy surrender, saving what little they could, for those, said he, are the facts of our existence in the age of oil.  I suspect his words would have resulted in a brawl had he uttered them before the populist majority that wrote our state constitution. They were supremely suspicious of concentrated wealth and power. They hated the railroad barons, today’s oil and gas boys, for reasons obvious.  The populist framers even debated whether our constitution could be submitted to Washington for ratification absent a legislature, direct democracy only.  Their compromise to a legislature was the initiative, the people’s first right to author legislation.  The initiative was to counterbalance an unresponsive or overreaching legislature.  Ironically, our right to author legislation by means of an initiative is seen as a direct threat by those we elect.  They’re not big on power sharing. We are necessary for their election and their right to make sausage, but, apparently, we are not good enough to participate directly in the sausage making.

In the end, the trustees voted 4-3 to not invoke a moratorium.  Jaffe did get the tally right.    Yet, even most of those who voted it down said they didn’t think the industry had dealt in good faith, that maybe they couldn’t even trust them given the way the way they’d lied about their intended actions.  Encana’s ear-splitting drilling invasion intensified citizen unrest when it dug through a closed landfill adjacent to the drill site, adding the prior generation’s toxic wastes to the general mayhem.

CRED, Citizens for Responsible Energy Development, the propaganda arm of Anadarko and Noble Energy, came in for particular disdain.  Encana did not help fund this monster of misinformation, for it is widely rumored to be running on empty.   The mayor and several others criticized the industry for salting the audience with people in CRED’s pay, thus denying locals and people speaking on behalf of local citizens seating. These people, many young and apparently underemployed, had spent the day gathering signatures of opposition to a moratorium and circulating CRED’s only message: fracking is safe and will save our country by providing jobs and energy independence.   This canned lie was countered at the hearing by a young mother, Kyle Roth, who pointed out that New York, before banning fracking, had reviewed over 400 peer reviewed articles on fracking, over 96 percent of which said fracking could have an adverse impact on public health.  Another Erie resident cited, in detail, the limited jobs and nominal town income derived from oil.  This clearly irritated the town’s well-paid city manager, A.J. Kruger, who reported a week earlier that he didn’t know how much money the industry brought to the city.

As has often been the case in the battle over protecting public health and safety, women led the charge.  Both the mayor, Tina Harris, and  trustee Jennifer Carroll, a young, thoughtful engineer voted for the moratorium, saying they would not be intimidated and were obligated to vote the interests of the people who elected them.  They were joined in support by trustee Scott Charles who offered a similar explanation, and added that even though he received a very small monthly mineral royalty, he would give that up if he thought it resulted in injury to his neighbors.  The National Association of Royalty Owners will undoubtedly excommunicate him for his apostasy.

I guess if you listen closely and don’t read the Denver Post, you can sometimes take away examples of decency, even in these sad times.

As for Gruber, it might be best if he were bronzed and screwed into the town-hall lawn as the living embodiment of every aspiring middle manager whose only life lesson seems to be, “go with authority.  It’ll secure your supper.”  And as for Jaffe, he will be reporting from Mars, or some other foreign environment, at the next Task Force meeting in Denver on February 3 and 4. Expect more razzle-dazzle.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. Doe is a co-sponsor of a public trust initiative that would turn the tables on the permitting process by making those seeking to use public resources, air, land, and water, to first demonstrate that the proposed use would not irreparably harm those resources–the reverse of the present permitting process. He can be reached