March was a good month for the fracking resistance in Colorado. After more than a decade of battling governors, the legislature, and the COGCC (whose vision of the future appears to include a drilling rig on every street corner) activists were already well-organized. Even though we haven’t had thousands of supporters we have been vocal, energetic, and most of all — persistent. And it’s paying dividends in 2017.
A rebound in investment in the oil & gas sector has spurred an increase in permit applications so far this year, even as completions on drilled wells are down (meaning operators are drilling wells but holding off on fracking due to low prices in a glutted market). As new investment dollars roll in, companies must “use it or lose it.” Faced with low prices, operators look for cheap places to drill. In Colorado that’s the DJ Basin located along the heavily populated Front Range. Drilling near and within residential communities adds even more cost savings due to existing infrastructure and a handy water supply. (Read: Why do gas companies drill in residential communities?) Consequently permit applications to drill in residential neighborhoods are way up in Adams, Arapahoe, Larimer, and Weld counties.
Last month Matt Sura, a Longmont environmental attorney and former oil & gas task force member, told the Denver Post: “The scale of the new sites that are preferred is unlike anything we’ve seen in the past, with up to 40 wells on a pad. And Colorado’s task force recommendations do not seem to be working. There are concerned neighbors from Greeley to Garfield County who are not being heard. You’re going to see more communities rising up to make sure they are protecting their neighborhoods.”
He’s right. Thousands more Coloradans have joined the fracking resistance movement. Ours numbers are increasing and our efforts are working as shown by this month’s trifecta.
1 — A win in court
Perhaps the most significant victory came from the Court of Appeals in its reversal of the COGCC’s order that had denied a rulemaking petition against fracking submitted back in 2013, by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Itzcuahtli Roske-Martinez, Sonora Brinkley, Aerielle Deering, Trinity Carter and Emma Bray, all of whom are members of Earth Guardians in Boulder.
The court sent the case back to the district court and the commission, stating that the commission had erred in its interpretation of Colorado law. The COGCC had argued that the Oil and Gas Conservation Act required that commissioners strike a balance between the regulation of oil and gas operations and protecting public health, the environment and wildlife resources.
By 2-1 the judges disagreed and ruled accordingly:
“We therefore conclude that the commission erred in interpreting [the Oil and Gas Conservation Act] as requiring a balance between development and public health, safety and welfare.”
“The clear language of the act … mandates that the development of oil and gas in Colorado be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”
Click here to read the full text of the Colorado Court of Appeals March 23rd ruling.
It’s not yet known whether the state will appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. However Mark Squillace, a professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado who was not involved in the case, told the Associated Press that it would be difficult for the state Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.
“The statute quite clearly requires that oil and gas development be done ‘in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare’,” Squillace said, quoting from the law.
No matter what the outcome, the ruling could not have come down at a better time as a bill to increase setbacks from schools was simultaneously being hashed out in committee in the Colorado House.
2 — A win for local control
Overshadowed by the surprising court victory and also on the same day, Boulder County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the strictest oil & gas regulations in the state which are intended to protect residents from health and environmental impacts caused by oil & gas development.
As you may recall last December, Boulder County extended their moratorium on oil and gas development until May 1, 2017. Then on Valentine’s Day, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit in a Boulder District Court against the moratorium. Boulder County defended their current moratorium saying it is temporary and legal and was needed in order to complete updates to regulations addressing oil and gas development in unincorporated Boulder County.
The county’s new regulations will require all new oil and gas permits to undergo “Special Use Review” to determine whether proposed development projects are compatible with surrounding areas. County regulators will take into consideration the proposed hours of a project’s operation, potential levels of traffic, light, noise and odor pollution, how adjoining property owners will be affected and how operators plan to reduce the project’s impacts.
According to a statement posted at the Boulder County website, the new regulations are:
- Comprehensive — They ask for detailed information and plans from operators in order to fully evaluate impacts and assess site-specific circumstances related to each oil and gas development application. They ask for alternative site locations.
- Inclusive — The regulations require extensive notice to surrounding landowners, provide multiple opportunities for public input, including a neighborhood meeting and public hearings in front of the Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners.
- Protective –– The regulations will closely scrutinize all proposed oil and gas development and hold operators to a high standard. The county will use 17 criteria to evaluate potential impacts on the surrounding area and the environment.
- Specific — The regulations provide details on conditions of approval and mitigation measures that the county may impose to reduce the impacts on neighboring landowners and preserve the county land and environment.
- Enforceable — All approved oil and gas development will be subject close monitoring and operators will be required to comply with all requirements and mitigation measures.
The new regulations will take effect at the end of the moratorium on May 1, 2017.
3 — A win in the legislature
There must have been something in the air other than wildfire smoke and ozone pollution on March 23, as it was also the day that the Colorado House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee members voted 6-5 to advance Rep. Mike Foote’s (D-Lafayette) HB 1256 for a vote on the House floor. HB 1256 would alter the statute regarding the minimum setback distance between schools and oil and gas equipment by requiring the distance be measured from the property line of a school campus rather than the school’s main building. The committee’s vote almost assured passage of the bill in the Democratic-controlled House.
And so it was. On Wednesday, HB-1256 passed the House on third reading on a 38-27 party-line vote. The bill is expected to die in the Republican-controlled Senate but it won’t be for lack of support from the people. Expect a raucous battle in defense of health and safety for our children.
A resounding salvo came from none other than Dr. Lisa McKenzie in an Op-Ed in the Denver Post last Friday: Further study is needed on link between leukemia and living near oil and gas wells.
Dr. McKenzie’s timing was right on target as she seized the opportunity to remind everyone about her recent study that revealed children with leukemia “were more likely to live closest to the oil and gas wells.”
Her harsh reminder ought to give pause to even the most frack-happy Republicans:
“Our critics are entitled to their opinions. To some, our observed four-fold increase in leukemia risk for Colorado’s children may seem ‘minuscule.’ However, our critics’ opinions cannot change the reality that Colorado kids who live closest to oil and gas wells are more likely to have leukemia. It is our opinion that the public deserves to know about our findings and have further scientifically valid studies conducted that can provide a body of evidence essential to making public health-based decisions regarding oil and gas production.”
Is a few hundred feet worth putting the health and safety of our schoolkids, teachers, and staff persons at risk?
It’s a discussion we will keep having for a long time to come, regardless of whether the bill fails in the Senate.
A light brigade at the end of the tunnel
As more and more people are becoming engaged in the fracking resistance it brings a new and inspiring air of creativity into our midst. The latest is a group of techno-geeks called Suede Light Brigade. They are self-described Light Warriors. According to a statement on their Facebook page: “Our purpose is to engage the public with artful and compelling messages and graphics projected onto surfaces in Boulder County — in order to provide basic education, and recommend actions to stop fracking in Boulder County.”
On their website, they offer instructions on the types of equipment needed to project your own fracking resistance messages and graphics in your neighborhood.
Let’s hope this catches on.