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Tsunami of Public Outrage Builds in Colorado as Fracking Invades Cities

What's happening in Greeley should frighten the citizens of every city that sits atop a shale deposit.

Photo Credit: Conny Jensen


Many people used to think serving on city council wasn’t worth a bucket of warm piss, as Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Garner, famously described his job.

Sewers, gutters, zoning, budgets, and taxation used to be the principal domain of city councils, with a little larceny thrown in now and then as reward—maybe a new driveway or remodeled bathroom from a favor-seeking contractor. In Colorado, city council members are sometimes paid a feeble $5,000 a year, but in smaller towns it may be nothing. Public service is its own reward.

Most people would rather watch an evening of “Survivor” reruns than go to a council meeting in their city. But no more. Not in Colorado since the invasion or threat of invasion by the oil industry into cities and towns up and down the Front Range. Colorado city council chambers now are flooded with citizens outraged by the regal indifference of the industry and their swarm of drones who are found at every level of local government, right up to the governor himself who bragged to Congress not long ago that fracking fluid was safe to drink. He knew because he had drunk some to no ill effect. This caused a local wag to proclaim, “the jury’s still out until somebody does an independent study of the guv’s brain function, ’cause there’s obviously some crazy chemistry working up there.”

The industry’s ace-in-the-hole is a mind-numbing determination by the Colorado Supreme Court back in 1992,  Voss v. Lundvall Brothers that local citizen rights, including the rights of self-determination, are subservient to oil and gas mineral rights and profits. Many see the decision’s looking-glass logic as a full frontal attack on the rights of the governed and the constitutional guarantees associated with Colorado home rule cities and towns.

Chief among the court’s arguments was the proposition that for the state’s oil resources to be developed to their maximum, cities and towns couldn’t be allowed to establish their own set of rules. That might discourage development of the state’s resources reasoned the court. What these arithmetically challenged men and women in black didn’t account for is the fact that the cities and towns of Colorado, all of them, constitute less than 2 percent of the state’s land base. The other 98 percent is available and would seem to provide adequate opportunity for development, and exploitation.

The assault on the city of Greeley because of this court decision should be frightening to the citizens of every city that sits atop shale deposits. This includes Denver proper which has largely missed the debate up to now. Indeed, the limited open space available to the industry within cities will result in highly concentrated, heavy industrial, polluting, and environmentally exempt oil colonies, as Greeley’s experience reveals.  

From the standpoint of local control and dispersed governmental powers, Colorado is a strong home rule state. The framers of the Colorado Constitution were strenuously opposed to monopoly capitalism, to concentrated wealth buying control of government. The railroad barons and oil trusts provided ready proof of the danger. Neither did the founding fathers trust centralized government. It could be too easily bought.

That is why, in Colorado, the water of the state is owned by the people, not the state. The framers thought the people would be harder to buy off. But even that control against monopoly interest hasn’t been entirely successful, as the courts and the legislature have been chipping away at the public’s greatest asset for years.

So when you read the 1992 opinion and compare it to the clear language of the state constitution one shouldn’t be totally surprised. The constitution says that the ordinances adopted by home rule cities “...shall supersede within the territorial limits and other jurisdiction of said city or town any law of the state in conflict therewith,” Colorado Constitution, Article XX, Section 6. That language seems pretty clear, at least to a non-judge.

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