Three Colorado cities voted Tuesday to ban fracking, the kind of test that might be coming to states from California to North Carolina as oil and gas drilling surges from coast to coast.
The Colorado vote, happening in a state with a long history of energy development, was a trial of whether the oil and gas industry could overcome passionate opposition to the drilling practice that’s helped create an American energy boom.
Voters in Fort Collins and Boulder banned hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for at least the next five years, while a prohibition on all new oil and gas wells passed in Lafayette. A fracking ban in Broomfield fell just 13 votes short, and a recount is likely. Advocates of banning the drilling process argue that it is a threat to air and water.
Natural Resources Defense Council spokeswoman Kate Sinding said she expects local anti-fracking ballot efforts to continue to spread.
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“It’s already bubbling up in California,” she said.
California is home to the largely undeveloped Monterey Shale, potentially the richest oil shale formation in North America and which lies under the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley. Other states with limited fracking experience could also see multiplying wells. New York state is debating whether to start allowing fracking. North Carolina is on course toward dropping its fracking moratorium.
Fracking, in which high-pressure water and chemicals are pumped underground to break shale rock and release the oil and gas trapped inside, has created a drilling boom across the country. Colorado saw its crude oil production spike 64 percent in four years and its natural gas production rise 27 percent.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association spent nearly a million dollars on a campaign against the proposed fracking bans, dwarfing the spending on the anti-fracking side. Tisha Schuller, president of the oil and gas trade association, said such bans are shortsighted and the industry is being wrongly painted as a villain.
“If I thought that something was going to poison my children I would be scared to death, and I’d be at the meeting, too, with a sign,” Schuller said. “In many, many cases they’ve been given misinformation.”
The energy boom is bringing money and jobs to Colorado, and the industry has influential allies. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and a former Denver mayor, insists that cities don’t have the power to ban fracking. Hickenlooper is suing to overturn the city of Longmont’s fracking ban, which passed with 60 percent voter support a year ago.
“The state government is hellbent on making Colorado an extraction colony,” said Rod Brueske, who lives near Longmont.
Brueske’s farmhouse is surrounded by golden barley and enjoys a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains, with the iconic Pikes Peak visible on a clear day. It would look like a Coors beer commercial if not for the oil and gas wells.
Brueske said members of his family had uncontrollable nosebleeds, migraine headaches and gastrointestinal problems after wells were drilled near his property. He complained of foul-smelling air to state regulators, who discovered a wellhead leak and an emissions control device not big enough to handle vapors.
Activists now plan to seek a statewide fracking ban in Colorado. The local bans so far have centered along the Front Range, which includes the most populous cities in the state and lies east of the Rocky Mountains.
There tends to be more support for drilling on the less populated western slope, where a fracking ban could be a tough sell.
“It’s a different mentality here than in Aspen or Boulder. This is a working community,” said Howard Orona, an assistant manager at the Clark’s Market Store in Battlement Mesa and a member of the county energy advisory board.
Orona said oil and gas workers make their homes in the area and care about keeping it clean.
But accidents happen. Orona lives along Parachute Creek, contaminated earlier this year with benzene and other chemicals following a natural gas pipeline spill. Sonny Lindauer, who also lives along the creek, said oil and gas companies shouldn’t have the right to affect people’s homes by introducing odor and noise.
“I know they need the natural gas, I wouldn’t object if they were honest and did it right,” said Lindauer’s wife, Ruth. “But a lot of it is sloppiness and a lot of it is lying.”
Schuller of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the industry is continuing to improve. Schuller said most Colorado towns live in harmony with oil and gas development, and people need energy.
“We need to take away this good guy/bad guy label and instead engage in ‘I need it, we all want it, we’re going to use it, so where are we going to get it and how are we going to do it well,”’ Schuller said.