Tsunami of Public Outrage Builds in Colorado as Fracking Invades Cities
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.
Ironically it was the city of Greeley that first attempted to stop oil drilling inside its city limits under its home rule powers. The 1992 case is the result.
For the people of Greeley, that 1992 court decision has meant the presence of 426 wells within the city, but all are of the old, before horizontal fracking, variety. A total of 1,600 are rumored to be on the planning horizon, but only the industry knows. The state has no master plan, none is envisioned, and by virtue of the 1992 decision, the cities have little say.
The Greeley city council, despite the tearful reasoned arguments of concerned mothers and the untearful reasoned arguments of medical and science professionals, approved the drilling of 16 horizontal wells only 350 feet from homes in a development called Fox Run, and about 200 feet from some businesses, shown as Sheep Hollow on the location map. The new rules taking affect on August 1 will require a 500-foot setback from residences, with a 1,000-foot setback from hospitals, schools and high-density housing. But the early approval voids these new setback standards.
Map by Carl Erickson
Guess what? The same oil company, Mineral Resources, Inc., is right back at it. The COGCC, the state agency with dictatorial power over people and cities on all matters oil and gas, approved two new drilling proposals within the city, one for 67 horizontal wells on a pad, and another for 37 wells. A local company, Mineral Resources, has been busy for a number of years buying the city out from underneath the residents, unbeknownst to most of them.
Arlo Richardson, the CEO of Mineral Resources, made a tidy fortune, apparently, running a vending machine company before selling out and making a seamless transition to urban oil baron. In purchasing the surface rights to the property shown in Illustration 1, Mid Town, several years ago, Richardson said they needed the property because they “couldn’t just drill in people’s back yards.”
Readers should decide for themselves whether the people in the 23 neighborhood homes counted in the survey are in harm's way. Readers might also want to know if the census boundaries from a public health standpoint shouldn’t be expanded to one mile since a recent study by Theo Colborn, unfortunately the only peer-reviewed study of its kind, recorded airborne chemicals and pollutants 0.7 of a mile away from a well pad with 16 wells, with measurements actually increasing once drilling ceased and operations began.
Many of the chemicals Colborn measured have no established health limits, but this does not mean that they aren’t potentially harmful. Not knowing does not mean they are safe.
Some might wonder, too, if the home, simply shown as House Number 37 on the map, isn’t a little close to the drill site by any reasonable standard of habitation. It might even be considered by some to be in their back yard. The draftsman for Energy Resources, doing some fancy figuring, lists it as being almost 500 feet from the drill site. To the eye it looks to be somewhere between 50 and 100 feet away from the drilling site boundary. House Number 63 is even closer, perhaps only a few feet from the site boundary. The legend shows the home to be unoccupied. It will almost certainly become abandoned if the plan becomes reality, for the site’s only access road would be about 100 feet away.
Try to visualize what it would be like to witness the continual roar of 18-wheelers delivering and then removing water, chemicals, sand, pipe, heavy equipment, etc. The truck trips alone required to drill 37 wells and the other necessary equipment such as storage tanks, well heads, separators, and flares—all of which emit methane and other chemicals—might come to over 64,000. That’s right, 64,000 truck trips.
Since all the 37 wells would probably not be drilled at once, but in increments of four to five at a time, the neighborhood could expect 24/7 Kleig lights turning night into day, heavy noise from drilling and rumbling trucks, and constant dust laced with chemicals in two to three week increments, several times a year, over two to three years, maybe longer.
And even after production was in full throttle the neighborhood might still witness another 6,000 production trips annually. Why would any human force another, no matter its pedigree, to submit to living in an industrial landscape that is simply hideous by any decent measurement of human habitation and environmental well-being?
Though the state continues to ignore studies like Dr. Colborn’s, it promises its own study someday, but urges caution so as not to pillory the industry with incomplete data. This was the message of the state’s head of Public Health and the Environment, Dr. Chris Urbina, as he represented the state, successfully, in opposing a legislative plan to start collecting data on medical reports from citizens living or working near oil and gas developments. Fortunately, he resigned last week, but not because it was discovered he didn’t understand the Hippocratic Oath.
Someday the state government will know what it has done to its people, but not before thousands of new wells are drilled within city boundaries across the state, in some cases only a shout away from some unknown citizen.
If you accept the anti-Utilitarian argument of doing the most bad to the most people, the 12 apartment houses directly to the west of the drill site fit this model. The first row of eight apartments is roughly 300 feet from the well site boundary. The four behind are about 400 feet from the boundary. Each apartment contains eight living units, 96 in all.
At the bottom left is the university complex for married students. There are 98 two-bedroom apartments in this complex. The complex is approximately 400 feet away at the nearest point and three blocks east of the main campus. The new rules going into effect on August 1 would require a 1,000-foot setback unless a variance were granted.
The mineral rights under the married student housing and other parts of the university, 246 acres in all, were leased to Energy Resources a couple of years ago. Deeply flawed though they are, rights to oil and gas on federal and state land must be bought at open auction. The lease of the university mineral rights was done without competitive bid. University president Kay Norton, after looking at how much the Richardsons already owned of the subsurface of the city decided it was best to go with that company.
She reasoned that her experience in the private sector gave her the background necessary to make a command decision about the use of public property. She had previously worked as counsel for the Monfort’s of Greeley, a slaughterhouse and meat packing company. She said the Richardsons were “family,” “great friends to the university,” and that “it was personal with them,” whatever that means. She went on to describe their operation as “boutique.” Arlo Richardson describes his operation as “niche.”
His description is more accurate it would seem, but his type of niche operation also gives the lie to the claims of Tisha Schuller, CEO of the industry’s Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Her claim is that one of the first virtues of horizontal fracking is its reduced surface footprint. She is fond of saying that on the west slope some pads had over 50 vertical or directional wells on them, but with horizontals one might see six to eight.
Oops, look at illustration 2, South Greeley below. The second of the Mineral Resource sites approved last week is establishing a new high in concentrated, heavy industrial oil mining within a city. The site’s 67 wells, shown as South Greeley on the location map, establishes a new potential high for Colorado anywhere, city or no city, and so much for the reduced footprint gambit.
Cementing Richardson’s claim to niche-dom over boutique status is the recent spill of over 4,000 gallons of chemically laced flow-back liquids from a drilling operation at its Island Park site in Greeley with 27 permitted wells (see location map). Cleanup so far has resulted in the removal of 70 cubic yards of contaminated material--presumably to a local land fill since the material, no matter what is in it, is considered non-hazardous under federal environmental laws. This already producing drill site is only 150 feet from the Poudre River, a national heritage site.
From a human impact perspective, one is drawn to the school at the top of the illustration, Frontier Academy Charter Elementary School. It houses over 600 students, K - 6, and is less than 500 feet from the well pad boundary. The new rules would require a 1,000-foot setback, and one must presume Mineral Resources is aware that by getting approval before August 1 they are exempted from the new setback rules. A Walmart is also located nearby, as are a number of other warehouses and businesses. Habitat for Humanity’s warehouse may have to be draped in crepe, or renamed.
It may occur to some that such massive industrialization, as these permits endorse, should have undergone strenuous internal environmental review, particularly with regard to air quality since it is known that large amounts of methane and volatile organic compounds escape from fracked oil and gas operations, and that Greeley is in the state’s ozone non-attainment area. According to a recent University of Colorado study, methane escaping from natural gas operations is responsible for 55 percent of the ozone in this area—sunlight converts methane to ozone. Add to this that Cornell University scientists' estimate the new technology of horizontal fracking leaks 40 to 60 percent more methane into the atmosphere than conventionally fracked wells. At some point the convergence of this information should cause reflection under the precautionary principle.
But the state remains unconcerned, since these wells will employ storage tanks and other technology, called “green completion,” for holding the chemically laced wastewater and flaring off some of the fugitive methane. Under this scenario, no further review is required by the state. Cumulative impacts are religiously ignored. And this is what the industry and state call the toughest regulations in the nation. Pity the nation, but pity the people of Greeley even more.
With regards to truck traffic and water use, the South Greeley site would require almost double the truck trips and material required for the Mid Town site since it has almost twice the wells. It’s quite possible that given the volume of water required the city might extend city water lines to these sites. Even so, about 50,000 truck trips would be needed during construction and 10,000 truck trips annually during operations to collect oil and wastewater. Some might consider this significant from a local and regional impact standpoint.
The water requirements for the 104 wells at the two sites, 5 million gallons per well, would come to about 16,000 acre-feet, spread over several years. Annually, this would be enough water for the domestic use of 16,000 people. It would be enough for 5,000 people annually if it were spread over three years running. Greeley has reportedly made a handsome profit selling water to the industry the last few years. Last year it pocketed $1.5 million in water sales to oil and gas. It received far less from agricultural users though according to reports it sold 10 times the amount of water to them. State law prohibits hoarding and speculation in water, but somebody has to enforce it.
There is an old German proverb that says, “birds of prey don’t sing,” but in Greeley and surrounding Weld County they sure have learned to squawk. Tom Norton, Kay Norton’s husband, the mayor of Greeley, and former president of the state senate, is the leader of a rebellion among the political elite and large landowners in Weld and four other northeastern Colorado counties to secede from Colorado and form their own state. The stated reasons are they are tired of the over-regulation of the oil industry by the state. No head scratching, please. More recently, the issue of water regulation has surfaced, too.
These latter-day sagebrush rebels should be careful of what they wish for. Like when Texas governor Rick Perry announced a couple of years ago that Texas might secede, there might be general relief throughout the state if these counties were to split off given the reactionary nature of their political delegation. For example, U.S. Representative Cory Gardner, who has lent his support to the rebellion, is also noted for his questioning of human contribution to climate change. He thinks it is overestimated.
Still, the water issue alone should give these folks great pause. They could very well end up like Nevada in the Colorado River Compact. With no headwaters and little population, they might find themselves cut out from most of the water in the Platte River, about 5 million acre-feet annually, much of it used by these seceding counties to raise corn ethanol. Impacted, too, might be their use of the publicly funded Colorado Big Thompson Project, which imports water from the Colorado River.
The new state might find it impossible to make the argument that it is entitled to that water since it is not part of the Colorado River Compact. Resistance from the seven existing compact states to a new entitlement for a new, non-compact state would be more than fierce. With the rest of Colorado already short of water, some might be licking their chops at the miscalculation by the few.
How few and how out of touch they are would surely be learned in the vote to secede. A statewide vote would be required. The unrest of the local population may begin to be measured when Energy Resources Inc. comes before the City Council in the near future seeking a Special Review exemption for their 104 new wells. Because the state has already approved the drilling proposals, they are exempted from the new setback standards. The city council will be looking, primarily, at whether the new wells are compatible with their 2020 Comprehensive Plan for the city. It states in part that:
“Assuring the development of a safe and pleasant community; improving the visual appeal of the community;..[to] Disallow high impact agricultural and heavy industrial land uses that generate obnoxious influences, such as noise, fumes, or hazards."
When the city council was confronted with 16 wells at Sheep Draw several weeks ago, they voted 7-0 in favor of approval. This was despite overwhelming opposition from an overflow crowd of citizens. The most anybody had ever seen at a city council meeting, according to some reports.
Imagine the reaction when the public learns of another 104 new wells to be followed by hundreds and hundreds more, presumably. The people are fast realizing that Greeley is becoming an oil colony for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. A tsunami of public outrage is coming.