In Colorado, a Bitter Battle Over Oil, Gas and the Environment Comes to a Head

Oct 23, 2018 by

The New York Times


Colorado is among the top six states in both oil and gas production. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

BRIGHTON, Colo. — On stage at the Adams County fairgrounds, the M.C. wore cowgirl boots and a pink T-shirt that read “Mothers in Love With Fracking.”

In the audience, more than a thousand oil and gas workers looked on as local leaders issued dire warnings about the effects of a Colorado ballot measure that, if passed, could drastically reduce oil and gas drilling in the state.

Thousands of jobs: gone. Millions of dollars: lost. Conservative families: driven out.

“The wolves are at the front door,” insisted one speaker. “We need to tell them to frack off,” thundered another.

After years of bitter fights over oil and gas development, Colorado voters have managed to get a statewide anti-fracking measure on the November ballot. The initiative is unprecedented in its scope — potentially barring new wells on 95 percent of land in top-producing counties — and industry executives are watching with concern, fearful that it could encourage similar measures across the nation.

So far, only New York, Maryland and Vermont have banned fracking altogether. But none of those states have anything close to the reserves of Colorado, which is among the top six states in both oil and gas production.

Not surprisingly, the initiative has deepened political fissures in a purple state whose economy counts on oil, but whose lifestyle hinges on access to pristine wilderness. As Colorado’s population has climbed, driven by the cost of living, a growing technology sector and the appeal of the outdoors, the state’s new and old industries have collided. At the same time, environmentally-oriented companies like Patagonia are pressing to become bigger political players in the region, often putting them at odds with the oil and gas lobby.

If passed, the measure — Proposition 112 — would require companies to place new wells at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, waterways and other areas designated as “vulnerable,” two-and-a-half to five times the current state regulation. Even as the measure faces fierce resistance, industry leaders and environmentalists alike acknowledge that it could succeed. One recent industry poll obtained by The New York Times showed 43 percent of voters in favor, with 41 percent opposed.

In recent years, Colorado oil and gas well operations have come so close to homes, schools and playgrounds that drill rigs, holding tanks, diesel trucks and floodlights are now common neighborhood features. In places like Weld County, the center of the state’s boom, residents increasingly fear they are exposing their children to chemicals. A series of deadly industry incidents has only heightened concerns.

Efforts to pass less extreme restrictions have failed, and in some neighborhoods, frustration has reached a fever pitch.

“It’s really community members against Goliath,” said Russell Mendell, 33, a volunteer with Colorado Rising, the main group supporting the measure.

Laurie Anderson, 45, a mechanical engineer and mother of five who has been fighting a large well project in her community, called the proposition “our only option.”

“It has to be a grass-roots, citizen-led effort,” she said.

In the last decade, fracking has become an increasingly important part of Colorado’s diverse economy, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

In a high-stakes election year, the proposition is likely to bring out voters on both sides of the political aisle, intensifying races for the governor’s office and several contested congressional seats.

Proponents of the measure say it is a common-sense regulation meant to protect people forced to breathe fracking-related fumes and live near explosion-prone sites. Opponents say it would cripple some Colorado communities, stripping the state of 43,000 jobs and more than $200 million in tax revenue in the first year alone. By 2030, lost tax revenue could hit $1.1 billion.

The real goal, they contend, is to halt drilling in Colorado altogether, before moving on to places like California and New Mexico.

“This is not a reasonable measure for health and safety,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group. “This is a measure to shut down the entire industry.”

At a time of deep political division, the measure has also emerged as a proxy battle over the direction of the state with national implications — putting to the test a tug of war between economic development and environmental protections that has reached critical levels of tension in the Trump era.

Energy industry employees and their families gathered for a rally against Proposition 112 this month in Brighton, Colo. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

Colorado is split in thirds among Republicans, Democrats and independents, and many who support the measure say it is a chance to put a progressive stamp on a purple state.

Those who oppose it say it is a liberal effort to drive a working-class industry — and its conservative employees — out of the state for good. Industry jobs pay an average of $117,000 a year, twice the typical state salary, according to federal data.

At the Brighton rally just north of Denver, many said that they never went to college, but that industry jobs had allowed them to stay in Colorado, raise a family, and buy a home. If the measure passed, they said, they would likely move to oil fields in Texas or North Dakota.

“The people that oppose this industry, they treat us as if we’re really evil,” said Cody Doane, 45, a service specialist who stood with his twins, Everleigh Halli and Adler Burton — named for the company that had given their family everything: Halliburton.

“They want to ban oil and gas and chase us out of this state,” he said.

Big producers like Anadarko, Noble and Extraction are so concerned about the initiative that industry players have donated more than $30 million to the principal group organizing the opposition.

Supporters of the anti-fracking measure, who are being outspent roughly 40-1, according to the secretary of state, see a steep road ahead.

Their main organizing group has raised just $800,000. And their effort is opposed not only by oil and gas companies and Republican politicians, but also by much of the Democratic establishment, with officials like Gov. John Hickenlooper expressing deep concern about the economic fallout.

Colorado residents have argued for years over how to balance drilling with the protection of human and environmental health. But tension has hit a high in the last decade with the increased use of hydraulic fracturing.

Just as thousands of people moved here, the state’s crude production more than tripled. Today, the top-producing county, Weld, is home to 22,000 active wells.


Sean Ewaskowitz rode his scooter against the backdrop of an oil rig in Erie, Colo. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

In the Denver suburbs, residents have tried repeatedly to move fracking operations farther from their homes, only to be stymied by their own representatives, the State Supreme Court and a regulatory agency they see as preferential to industry.

Supporters of the setback measure believe this anger will carry them to victory.

In Erie, Colo., Beth Ewaskowitz, 48, a pharmacologist who lives near dozens of wells, became a symbol of the oil and gas fight this year when she sent her 6-year-old son’s blood to be tested for chemicals associated with fracking operations. A local doctor found her son in the 79th to 85th percentile for three of them — benzene, ethylbenzene and o-xylene — and her story was picked up by local news media.

“I understand it isn’t, ‘I have high blood levels, therefore the villain is fracking,’” Ms. Ewaskowitz said. “However, if it’s not the fracking, then what? What? And if you can’t tell, what am I supposed to do with that?”

The state’s top toxicologist cast doubt on the test’s validity, and said it showed no clear link to the industry.

But part of activists’ concern is that there is no conclusive information about what effect living near oil and gas operations has on long-term health. A 2017 state study found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.” But a year later, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health concluded that the air quality around oil and gas wells puts people nearby at an increased risk of developing cancer.

But the oil and gas rally brought out plenty of workers who called Colorado’s fracking industry the safest in the nation.

At the front by the stage, Matt Smith, 42, stood with his children, Parker, Pepper, Peyton and Preston, ages 3 through 12. Parker slept in his arms, her ponytail drooped over one arm, her blue boots hanging over another.

The older children had missed school for this event.

“This affects their lives,” said Mr. Smith, a Halliburton employee. “What happens in November will in turn affect their lives. Whether I have a job or not, whether we get to stay, to keep living where all my children were born.”

He went on: “The sooner they are in touch with what goes on in the real world, the better.”

Julie Turkewitz reported from Brighton, Colo., and Clifford Krauss from Houston.

Follow Julie Turkewitz and Clifford Krauss on Twitter @julieturkewitz and @ckrauss.

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