Hick gets flack from frack

The Colorado Statesman

LONGMONT — Citizens of Longmont gathered at Roger’s Grove Park on Saturday to demand that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, drop a state lawsuit against the city for enacting its own local rules and regulations governing the controversial energy drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.

The lawsuit was filed on July 30 in Boulder County District Court. State attorneys for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or the COGCC, filed the case, seeking to overturn the rules enacted by the Longmont City Council on July 17. Longmont has filed a motion to dismiss the case, and COGCC’s response in opposition to the motion is due Sept. 28.

Longmont residents and environmental activists are angry with Gov. John Hickenlooper for defending a state lawsuit against the city after the municipality enacted its own rules and regulations governing hydraulic fracturing in the city.
Photo by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

The challenge is believed to be the first time the state has initiated a lawsuit against local government regarding oil and gas regulation.

The rules enacted by Longmont are not believed to be overly burdensome on the industry, including imposing a well setback of at least 150 feet; additional water sampling/testing requirements; a ban on oil and gas well facilities in residential zones; and an independent chemical disclosure rule, to name a few components of the ordinance.

Carrying signs that read, “Hickenlooper, listen to us: Don’t frack Longmont!” the coalition of environmental activists and concerned residents said the governor has not been listening to their concerns. Hickenlooper, a former geologist, has repeatedly stated that he supports hydraulic fracturing, and is not aware of any negative health impacts associated with the process in Colorado.

The governor has the support of the energy industry, which also maintains that fracking is safe. They point out that to alleviate concerns, energy companies first voluntarily disclosed ingredients used in the process, and now comply with state regulations to disclose ingredients used, which are posted at FracFocus.org.

Industry spokespeople also say precautions are taken to ensure that accidents do not occur. Many energy companies require that multiple protective layers of pressure-tested steel pipe, known as casing, and cement be set several hundred feet below the deepest aquifer and cemented to the surface. Companies also say that regular inspections are scheduled to ensure well and mechanical integrity.

But skepticism seems to still be growing. The “Rally ‘Round Longmont” event was part of the Global Frackdown movement, an international day of action against fracking.

Longmont residents and environmental activists gathered at Roger’s Grove Park on Saturday to try to drum up support for a municipal ballot question that asks voters to ban fracking within Longmont city limits.
Photo by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

The process has become controversial because it fractures rock by employing the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase the extraction rates in recovering oil and natural gas. Fears have grown that some of those chemicals can leak into groundwater.

At the rally, Longmont citizens pushed support for a municipal ballot question, Question 300, which would prohibit fracking in Longmont city limits.

Kaye Fissinger — a member of the steering committee for Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, the organization that has spearheaded Question 300 — said the ballot question is related to the governor’s lawsuit. She said citizens are trying to protect themselves from the state taking away their local desire to keep Longmont free of hydraulic fracturing activities.

Fissinger said the governor was invited to the rally, but that he declined to come. She added that at a recent round-table discussion in Longmont on Sept. 19 attended by the governor — set-up by the local chamber of commerce to discuss Question 300 — the general public was not invited. The discussion did include environmental and community advocates, but protesters outside were outraged that they couldn’t sit-in to hear what Hickenlooper had to say.

“He engineered a closed-door pre-selected audience,” Fissinger said of the round-table discussion. “The governor had said… that he wanted to come to Longmont, and he wanted to listen to the people of Longmont to find out what their concerns are, and we were very upset with him that he did not come and actually listen to the people of Longmont. He came and talked to the people that he wanted to talk to.”

Eric Brown, spokesman for Hickenlooper, did not make the governor available for comment when asked by
The Colorado Statesman. But Brown told The Statesman, “The governor could not attend the weekend rally because he was at the long-planned Pedal The Plains bicycle tour on the Eastern Plains. He has met with local residents to talk about fracking… We are open to another meeting and working now to find available time in the governor’s schedule.”

But many in the Longmont community are looking for swift action from the governor. They say he has the power to call off the lawsuit, and they are looking for a commitment. Fissinger questions whether Hickenlooper’s support of fracking is tied to his background working for the energy industry as a geologist.

“What we’re getting from the governor is the oil and gas Kool-Aid. That there’s no problem, trust me, it’s all safe, we have to regulate this on the state level, and we can’t have local control, even though the constitution guarantees us local control,” she said.

Local versus state control

For the governor and state oil and gas regulators, the lawsuit truly does come down to an issue of state versus local control. The state believes that it — through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — has the executive authority to impose rules with input from local representatives to the commission. As a result, the state is arguing that many of the rules enacted by Longmont contradict state law and therefore should be overturned.

Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, says part of the reason for the lawsuit is to simply get guidance from the courts on the local versus state control issue.

“Citizens in Longmont and across the state deserve a clearer sense of authority on this matter, and so we think it’s time to turn to the courts for direction and resolution,” King said in an earlier statement following the filing of the lawsuit.

The legislature attempted to address the issue this year with a bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville. House Bill 1277 sought to give some control over oil and gas regulations to local governments, but the bill died in committee.

Trevor Kincaid, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a newly formed local think tank for Western natural resource issues, says the issue in Longmont is really about striking a balance between the needs of the citizens, local government and the state. Kincaid, a Democratic strategist who served as communications director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s 2010 campaign, believes Colorado’s Democratic governor is missing an opportunity to bridge divides.

“While Hickenlooper may have the industry believing he knows what’s best for Coloradans, he is far from convincing the city of Longmont and other communities throughout Colorado,” Kincaid said in an e-mail.

He elaborated in an interview with The Statesman, stating, “Our concern with the situation that is developing in Longmont is that the governor seems to be unwilling to make reasonable concessions for the community that’s asking for basic common sense protections.

“Public lands attract a variety of businesses to our communities and define Colorado’s way of life,” added Kincaid. “The way they are used must be on Colorado’s terms. All of us, from hunters and anglers to ranchers and hikers, use these lands. We want to make sure that Gov. Hickenlooper’s treatment of Longmont is not symbolic of how he does business.”

Those at the rally on Saturday agreed that Hickenlooper is out of touch with the will of the people when it comes to local oil and gas regulation. They sang songs that included the lyrics, “Let’s keep this place a great place to live,” and criticized the governor for not listening to them.

Lindsay Gahn, a Longmont mother, joked that she may not be Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich in a movie about exposing illegal environmental practices by the energy industry, but she likened Longmont’s crusade to the storyline. She pointed out that there are 14 schools in Longmont and 13 parks that are adjacent to so-called “red zones,” or where energy companies are permitted to frack.

“I researched the effects of the chemicals used in fracking — neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens — and these are the chemicals we know about. There are still chemicals that are considered trade secrets,” said Gahn. “If these are the chemicals we know about, what don’t we know about? What’s still being hidden from us?”