Hard positions and hard feelings, both sides are sinners on fracking
WTF. No, I don’t mean “Welcome to Fruita,” the sentiment those black and white bumper stickers that enjoyed a brief period of notoriety around here a while back.
Instead, I’m thinking “What the Frack,” as in hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking. Forcing millions of gallons of fluids deep underground to increase productivity of oil and gas wells has become increasingly contentious.
The issue pits Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission against Front Range communities where voters have approved moratoriums on fracking within municipal boundaries.
That prompted the state and industry groups to file lawsuits against the communities and may also portend attempts to get anti-drilling and/or anti-fracking issues on the statewide ballot next November. It could be a factor in Hickenlooper’s 2014 re-election bid.
On all sides, this dispute is laced with enough misinformation, political misdirection, hidden agendas and intrigue to make it worthy of a “WTF” of another sort.
The arguments are nothing new here on the sunset side of the Rockies. Tainted water wells and streams, spills, distances between homes and drilling activity, noise and traffic from exploration and production, disclosure of the contents of fracking fluids and, more recently, attendant air emissions have been argued over for years.
But once that became commonplace in densely populated areas of the Front Range, the smelly stuff quickly collided with the oscillating blades.
“Both sides are sinners,” I was told in one conversation last week.
The industry persists in saying drilling and fracturing should be considered separately, that there’s been no documented instance of fracking problems, only well-casing issues. But fracking is impossible without a hole to force fluids down. It’s disingenuous to not treat both as a system.
On the other side, some opponents are comfortable combining fracking and drilling into a general argument against oil and gas extraction. A quick review of letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in Fort Collins, Boulder, Broomfield, Lafayette and Longmont area papers (and closer to home) demonstrates that.
We’re awash in false choices — kids or cars, jobs or clean air, fracking or freezing.
The governor’s stubbornness on the issue, perhaps unsurprising given his background as an exploration geologist, doesn’t help either issue resolution or his political standing. Nor has the attitude of the COGCC that these are issues best left to the “experts.”
These are no longer purely technical issues. They’re political.
That’s why we see warm-and- fuzzy, industry-sponsored ads that we’ll be stuck with until next November. They’re a curious counterpoint to the lawsuits from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an action akin to pouring their own gasoline on a fire.
Knowledgeable local government attorneys expect the state and industry to prevail in the legal skirmishes, after some pawing and snorting about police powers and Home Rule, land-use authority and takings. Colorado’s Constitution, cited in previous state Supreme Court decisions, pretty clearly outlines what local governments can regulate in this arena, and actions amounting to bans on drilling have been overturned.
What’s left is the bigger battle to change the Constitution, either by legislative referral (something possible but politically unlikely) or a voter-initiated ballot issue. Even that is fraught with questions.
If opponents go for an outright ban on fracking, that’ll be a David and Goliath battle with an industry that didn’t blink twice about spending about $1 million in four recent local elections. And that road runs uphill, given a recent Quinnipiac University poll that found 51 percent of Colorado voters supported fracking.
If, instead, ballot issues are crafted to deal with more specific issues — full and public disclosure of the contents of fracking fluids or requiring use of available “green” fluids might be examples — they could make sense to more voters.
Things might have been different.
Hickenlooper might have first stepped forward as a mediator rather than an adversary. The industry might have embraced disclosure and different spacing distances, things they end up living with sooner or later after shooting themselves in the foot with opposition.
Instead, as one attorney told me last week, “These hard positions are going to make for hard feelings.”