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Colorado fracking fuels fight between state and local government over control

September 8, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
In Colorado, the debate over pumping pressurized water underground to extract oil and natural gas has turned local and state governments into rivals. When one city banned fracking altogether, the state launched two lawsuits. Special correspondent Dan Boyce of Rocky Mountain PBS reports on how the friction between activists and industry has turned into a fight over local and state control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We just heard about how immigration may affect the coming election in a number of states, including Colorado. Well, it turns out there is another issue that could have a significant impact in the state of Colorado, fracking.

Communities there are engaged in a battle with the state to get more control over oil and gas drilling.

Rocky Mountain PBS’ Dan Boyce reports from the town of Longmont.

KAYE FISSINGER: I found out that they were going to be fracking all around Union Reservoir.

DAN BOYCE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN PBS: Seventy-year-old great grandmother Kaye Fissinger is a busy woman these days. She’s been fighting for the last three years to protect the town she loves from fracking, the technique of pumping pressurized water deep underground to fracture rock and extract oil and natural gas.

KAYE FISSINGER: So, we don’t have drilling and fracking yet here, and that’s because of the ban.

DAN BOYCE: Fissinger was eager to show us this reservoir at the edge of Longmont, where companies have been trying to put in a series of gas wells.

KAYE FISSINGER: There will be fracking all around here, where people play.

DAN BOYCE: She’s worried it will soon look like so many other places along Colorado’s Front Range, with drill towers and wellheads cropping up next to homes at an unprecedented rate.

Activists like Fissinger in a handful of communities just north of Denver succeeded in keeping this boom away from their doorsteps by lobbying at the local level. The Longmont City Council voted to restrict where wells could be built a couple of years ago.

A few months later, residents took it a step further, passing a ban on fracking altogether. The state government immediately launched two lawsuits against Longmont for this, and it fired up a grassroots citizens movement for a statewide initiative to give local communities more control over fracking.

REP. JARED POLIS, (D) Colorado: People are most concerned what it means for their quality of life.

DAN BOYCE: The activists’ cause got a big financial boost when their congressman and former tech entrepreneur, Democrat Jared Polis, decided to bankroll the so-called local control initiative.

Local vs. state control has become the crux of the fight over fracking both in Colorado and around the country.

REP. JARED POLIS: What I think it should be left to is each community to decide. And I think — and we have many communities. One of the counties nearby, Weld County, it’s an important part of their economy. Other areas that I represent have voted to ban it. I think those votes should be respected. It’s like any kind of other industrial operation. I think it’s up to communities to decide if they want to incorporate that into their economic development strategy or not.

DAN BOYCE: But party Democrats did not want the initiatives to make the November ballot, and the pressure on Polis to back down kept mounting, says University of Denver political science professor Peter Hanson.

PETER HANSON, University of Denver: From a political standpoint, the fracking initiatives were going to make life very difficult for the Democrats this fall. Mark Udall and Governor Hickenlooper are facing very competitive races. And for Senator Udall or the governor to open themselves up to the accusations that they were somehow opposed to energy development and jobs in the state would have been politically quite dangerous for them.

NARRATOR: Colorado is sitting on vast reserves of shale. They can provide huge amounts of oil and natural gas through an environmentally safe process called fracking.

DAN BOYCE: Even before the initiatives had gained enough signatures to make the ballot, the industry was already spending millions of dollars in advertising to fight them.

NARRATOR: It means jobs for Colorado.

DAN BOYCE: The ad spending showdown over the measures was expected to total tens of millions, breaking state records.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, (D) Colorado: Energy extraction and our environment and managing the balance can be difficult, but it is something we have always been able to do in Colorado.

DAN BOYCE: Last month, Governor John Hickenlooper announced he had reached a compromise between some major environmental organizations and industry groups. The state would drop one of the lawsuits against Longmont. Congressman Polis would drop his two ballot initiatives. The oil and gas industry would drop two pro-fracking initiatives and a new so-called blue-ribbon commission would be appointed to craft a solution on local control issues for the state legislature.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER: This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives, and citizens who can advise the legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward.

DAN BOYCE: Business and industry groups have long argued the state is best equipped to regulate the oil and gas industry to avoid a hodgepodge of regulations.

MATT LEPORE, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: Where all of those — all those red dots are wells.

DAN BOYCE: Matt Lepore heads up the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency which regulates the industry.

MATT LEPORE: Part of what is going on I think it’s important for everybody to understand is that these cities and communities are expanding. What was once just rural agricultural land, subdivisions get developed.

If, today, the local governments chose to say no drilling in our residential zone, what about tomorrow, when the residential zone has moved again out to where drilling was OK?

DAN BOYCE: Lepore says the governor was right to broker the compromise.

Would you go so far as to say you breathed a sigh of relief?

MATT LEPORE: I think that, yes, I did, and I think Colorado should have breathed a sigh of relief, too, to be honest.

The state is, in my opinion, uniquely equipped to regulate oil and gas, both in terms of the expertise that we have and the resources that we have and the long history of regulating it that we have.

DAN BOYCE: The state of Colorado has been a leader in requiring oil and gas companies to disclose fracking fluid information and to control methane emissions at the wells.

Representative Polis doesn’t think that’s enough. He wishes Governor Hickenlooper’s compromise would have gone further, but he says it was better than gambling in November.

REP. JARED POLIS: So, absolutely better than rolling the dice with an initiative that may or may not pass, having oil and gas company-sponsored initiatives on the ballots as well, which could have been a setback for protecting our environment and our homeowners. This provides some certainty, a few steps forward, and a process in place that hopefully will allow us to solve this issue in the future.

DAN BOYCE: But the anti-fracking crowd attacks Polis for caving to political pressure.

If you could sum it up, some up your feelings…

KAYE FISSINGER: Betrayal. Betrayal.

DAN BOYCE: Kaye Fissinger, a lifelong Democrat, says the whole thing is forcing her to leave the party.

KAYE FISSINGER: It will be a cold day in hell before I vote for Hickenlooper, not for somebody who betrays us like that, who sues us twice, with our own money, no less.


KAYE FISSINGER: How could I?  It would — it would so violate my integrity to vote for this man. So, there’s a green candidate. And I will vote for him.

DAN BOYCE: You felt that compromise was a subversion of…

KAYE FISSINGER: The democratic process, yes.

DAN BOYCE: Gwen Lachelt is a lifelong environmentalist and county commissioner from the southwestern part of Colorado. She’s not abandoning the process yet. She too supported the local control measures, and the compromise left her with mixed emotions.

GWEN LACHELT, La Plata County Commissioner: I have both a sense of disappointment and also a sense of this blue-ribbon commission could really be an opportunity for not only Colorado, but for other states that are dealing with this issue.

DAN BOYCE: Governor Hickenlooper is tasking Lachelt to co-chair the new commission, which is charged with resolving these conflicts over local control. Lachelt says industry can’t ignore the issue anymore.

GWEN LACHELT: If the oil and gas industry refuses this time to address the people’s concerns, they will lose their social license to operate, and the people of Colorado will take matters in their own hands. If this commission fails or the legislature fails to enact the recommendations from this commission in 2015, I say, get ready for 2016.

DAN BOYCE: In the meantime, the industry is continuing to drill new wells at a furious pace in many parts of the state.

KAYE FISSINGER: The people of Longmont look to you tonight.

DAN BOYCE: And the citizens of Longmont are continuing to fight to keep their fracking ban.

ROD BRUESKE: This ban has become more than just a ban on hydraulic fracturing. It has become a statement of democracy for and by the people.

DAN BOYCE: Residents spoke up at a recent city council meeting with impassioned pleas after a district judge declared the ban unconstitutional. Council members voted unanimously to appeal that ruling.


JUDY WOODRUFF: This story was produced in cooperation with Inside Energy. That’s a public media collaboration focusing on America’s energy issues.