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Tensions Flare In Colorado Oil Fields

Tensions continue to grow between the Hickenlooper Administration and landowners impacted by an oil and gas drilling boom along the Colorado Front Range.

The Governor recently formed a task force that’s aiming to smooth out conflicts and determine if tougher laws are needed to do things like create bigger buffers between drill rigs and densely populated neighborhoods. But some landowners have little faith that the task force will actually bring reforms.

Two Counties, Two Paths

Weld County is now home to a third of all of the active oil and gas wells in Colorado. Rob Brueske can see two of them from his small farm which lies just across a highway in neighboring Boulder County.

“We went from five to six oil and gas wells within a mile radius of my family’s home, to now we’re going to be over 30,” Brueske says walking across his property. “As you can see, we’re going to be surrounded.”

Boulder County recently enacted a temporary ban on drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Weld County did not. And there’s every indication those wells Brueske is pointing at in the bright sun will continue to proliferate.

After all, the area sits atop the lucrative Niobrara shale formation, which some estimates show could hold more than a billion barrels of oil.

“They’re fracking right now as we’re speaking and soon you’ll be seeing plumes of stuff coming out, we’ll probably be smelling some fumes since the wind is coming this way,” Brueske says.

Brueske is worried about air pollution from the wells like these. It’s just one of the arguments used by those making the case as to why local governments should have more power to regulate drilling. Governor Hickenlooper has so far resisted such efforts, though he recently convened a task force that’s studying whether more regulations are needed.

Avoiding Court

Conservationists and some landowners have accused the Governor of trying to punt away the controversy, something Hickenlooper has denied.

“What we’re trying to do is lay out an architecture by which we can avoid court,” Hickenlooper recently told KUNC.

He says one of the main goals of the task force is to clearly define where the state has regulatory authority and where it doesn’t.

“And hopefully make sure that all the counties recognize that they have inherent rights in the present system, that they might be causing more trouble than help in trying to impose new regulations and rules,” Hickenlooper says.

Last fall, Hickenlooper won praise for brokering a deal between the industry and conservationists that requires companies to disclose the chemicals they use when they frack wells.

But it’s clear he may face a much bigger challenge this go around.

“There’s a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates that fracking cannot be safely regulated,” says Sam Schabacker, mountain west director for the conservation group Food and Water Watch in Denver.

Schabacker has been working with community groups from Greeley to Commerce City, trying to mobilize local governments to pass permanent fracking bans. The group says it’s been instrumental in passing 130 such bans nationwide. And Schbacker says it’s time for the current regulatory system to be overhauled.

“The technology is so different, it’s so dangerous, that we need to revisit whether cities and counties should have the power to ban fracking within their jurisdictions,” he says.

Calls for Dialogue

But Tisha Schuller, president of the trade group the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, who also has a seat on the governor’s task force, sees things differently.

“I suspect that as we continue to engage with communities that their comfort level with the industry with the oversight of federal and state agencies, that this conversation is going to continue to evolve,” she says.

That evolution has already begun, says Schuller, noting that some communities have stepped back from what had been an aggressive push just a couple of months ago to implement tougher local regulations.

“I think that the majority of Coloradans understand that we all live based on a lifestyle that fundamentally needs petroleum products, so whether it’s natural gas that heats our homes or the fuel for transportation, we’re all a part of this equation,” Schuller says.

And if you do the math, the oil and gas industry has been one of just a few bright spots during the state’s sluggish economic recovery.

Task Force Mission Questioned

Back in Boulder County, farmer Rob Brueske says he’s not anti-oil and gas, but he says he is pessimistic that the governor’s task force will help people like him.

A good start, says Brueske, would be increasing the amount of on-the-ground inspectors. Currently there are 15 employed by the state’s COCGG. But there are more than 45,000 active oil and gas wells.

“The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is not here to help or protect the citizens, they’re here to facilitate the exploitation of our natural resources,” Brueske says.

The COGCC has repeatedly denied such claims, noting they’re tasked with balancing oil and gas development with environmental protection.

In the meantime, the governor’s task force holds its third meeting this Thursday, with a report due to Hickenlooper by late next month.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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