Boulder County commissioners: Can you hear us now?

Anti-fracking proponents are turning up the volume, and for good reason

Boulder County commissioners

First, let me say that I really appreciate the efforts that Boulder County Commissioners Will Toor, Deb Gardner and Cindy Domenico are making to help improve our county’s antiquated oil and gas regulations. I don’t envy them as they work their way through this difficult and incredibly important task.

I’m guessing they have noticed that those who oppose oil and gas drilling in our county, particularly those wells utilizing horizontal drilling and fracking technologies, have become more vocal in their opposition of late. In fact, they couldn’t avoid noticing that their last public meeting on the subject became a full-on anti-fracking protest complete with begging, tears, accusations and even language that some folks may have construed as threatening. Time’s up, elected leaders. The fracking issue has officially blown up, and it is up to you to understand why and to do something about it, something bold and substantial.

This isn’t like other recent issues that have been volatile on the county level, like GMOs on county open space. This time around, Boulder County citizens can’t just choose to shop at the local organic clean air and water store and pay a little more to keep their families safe while they carry on the fight with their own county to get it to do what the vast majority of citizens want.

When people hear that the county’s staff and consultants are actually worried that recommending even something as small, and frankly pathetic, as 750- or 1,000-foot setbacks from homes is too restrictive and might anger Encana and its oil and gas industry peers, they get mad. The people of Boulder County aren’t stupid or poorly informed. They know about the research that says that having a drilling platform within 2,500 feet of your home may greatly increase your family’s chances of getting sick. They have read how groundwater contamination linked to fracking and poor drilling practices in places like Pavillion, Wyo., have destroyed communities. They’ve seen the gas bubbling up in our Western Slope rivers, and they’ve seen people in Weld County lighting their drinking water on fire. And yes, they are aware that Encana seems to be around when things like that go wrong, always sending out the PR people to tell us that it’s not the company’s fault.

Encana owns and operates the Muddy Gap Field in Pavillion, where the EPA found that not only is it likely that fracking has contaminated the groundwater, but that out of 169 wells examined by the agency, only two were properly cased and cemented to an adequate depth to protect groundwater. Encana is currently being investigated for price-fixing, along with its industry pal Chesapeake Energy. Evidence suggests that the two companies were allegedly exchanging email messages about not competing with one another to hold down lease prices. Evidence released so far suggests the emails came from the top, not some rogue petroleum landman in the field.

And here we are in meek little ol’ Boulder County, trying to not make our hoped-for compromises to save our environment and quality of life too expensive or burdensome for the likes of Encana, which has already lined up dozens of drilling permits that it will presumably fulfill with the same lack of grace and environmental concern that it has exhibited in its other producing fields. This is why so many people are angry.

They don’t want an extra 150 feet on a setback and another Encana promise to be really careful about its air and water pollution this time around.

Boulder County residents understand that once this tidal wave of drilling rolls through, it’s over. It’s done. Forever. We can’t go back, we can’t undrill or unpollute our once-beautiful homeland. This is why people are so angry.

The oil and gas industry understands what our elected leaders don’t seem to get, namely, that it has to drill it all right now because public opinion is turning, towns are passing fracking bans, and science is starting to catch up and is warning us of potential dangers from fracking that the industry laughed off and claimed could never happen only a few years ago.

Just this week, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that disposal wells where fracking fluids are hidden away are, in fact, causing earthquakes, something the industry has denied for years. More importantly, that means that those disposal wells are located along previously unknown faults, which means that the toxic fracking liquids can escape from their supposed permanent burial sites and begin the journey toward the groundwater above, where such contamination could have staggering consequences. New research in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania has confirmed that this is likely happening. This is why people are angry.

Note to our county commissioners: Please stop trying to figure out the best compromise you can get without angering the state and the oil and gas industry, and start using radical, creative thinking to do the will of the people and stop the fracking. We understand that we will get sued and it will cost money. We approve the expenditure. If you don’t believe us, put it to a vote like they did in Longmont. You know it would pass. Even if we can’t win, we can certainly delay things until more information and new legal challenges to the industry arise. If we don’t fight now, when that new information comes along that finally stops or makes fracking more safe, it will not matter. Boulder County will already have been decimated. Our air will already be more dangerous to breathe and our property values will already have been devastated.

There are many lawsuits currently under way around the country that are effectively slowing down or even temporarily stopping the drilling. Boulder County should extend the moratorium on drilling and use the time to study which of these suits we could use here to our advantage.

The state of Colorado recently announced that it will not enforce the EPA’s new air quality standards for oil and gas wells because it only has eight existing air-quality inspectors who already can’t get to the state’s existing 48,000 wells. The EPA should be willing to enforce its own laws, but it says it has assigned its enforcement and inspection duties to the state. Why can’t Boulder County use this incompetence to its advantage? Boulder County could refuse to grant a drilling permit for any well that will not be operated and inspected in accordance with federal air quality standards. If the state sues, the EPA should have to join with the county in defending the practice. Boulder County wouldn’t be setting its own more restrictive requirements on the oil and gas industry, it would simply be refusing to allow the industry to operate outside of the existing federal law. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. The point is our county commissioners have to stop trying to get as little as they can get away with from the industry and state to avoid getting sued. If we don’t fight to stop, or at least delay as long as humanly possible, the coming fracking invasion, we all lose, forever.

And that’s why people are so angry, and why they will only get moreso until their voice is heard.