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Longmont on the Front Lines of Fracking Controversy

Kirk Siegler

The ballot box is shaping up to be the new frontline in the battle over the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. 

Voters in three Pennsylvania towns recently considered referendums banning fracking amid environmental and public health concerns. In northern Colorado, where oil and gas drilling is also booming, voters in one city may see a similar ballot question this fall. 

Going to the Ballot

In the mid afternoon heat, Peter Champe, a fit forty-something in a casual shirt and shorts, surveys a scene becoming more and more common in his hometown of Longmont. It’s a recently drilled oil and gas well, several hundred yards from Trail Ridge Middle School on the city’s eastern edge.

“Multiply this by a hundred and you’ll see what’s wrong with this picture,” Champe says, who’s worried that the drilling boom occurring to the south in Erie and to the east in towns like Frederick and Firestone will soon come here.

After all, the drill rigs have been on a steady march lately from the mostly rural plains of Weld County to the more densely populated Front Range. 

Longmont is one of many cities and counties that have responded by passing temporary drilling moratoriums. But last month when the city council backed away from new regulations that would have banned fracking all together from residential areas, Champe and other local activists scrambled into action.

“The speed of technological development has far outstripped the regulatory ability to adequately control it,” Champe says.

They formed the group Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which is working to get a measure on the November ballot to completely ban fracking from within Longmont city limits.  Colorado courts have struck down similar local efforts in the recent past

But Champe has a new strategy. 

“This is a constitutional argument,” he says.

He argues the state constitution provides that every Coloradan has a right to a healthy environment; one where his or her private property values aren’t disrupted by drilling.

Split Estate Conflicts

But that argument may be ignoring another private property right; those who hold mineral leases on the land below all the homes and schools. And therein lies the rub, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources director Mike King.

“Whether a local ordinance was passed by a city council or by an initiative of citizens of a municipality, from a legal perspective it really is a distinction without a difference,” King says.

DNR officials and Governor Hickenlooper say the courts and the state legislature have already affirmed that oil and gas drilling is a state interest, and is to be regulated by the state because so many interests are involved. 

But that’s not to say that a city like Longmont can’t work with the state to mitigate drilling or even limit it, King says.

“I’m not sure that they’ll get to a better place through that process, in fact I’m confident that they won’t, rather than working with us as we develop some standards and conditions of approval that might be appropriate in places like Longmont,” he says.

Local Control

In many ways, Longmont is Colorado’s flash point in the larger national debate over whether local governments should have more authority to regulate or even ban fracking. 

Yasamin Miller, director of Cornell University’s Survey Research Institute, says it’s no surprise that the local city council chambers and now the ballot box is the new venue of choice for anti-fracking activists. 

“People have great trust in their local government, not so much in terms of state government, not so much in terms of corporations or unions,” Miller says.

In fact, Miller’s institute recently released a poll showing an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers favored more local control on fracking.  It followed a high-profile court ruling siding with the small upstate village of Dryden, which has enacted a permanent drilling ban.

“I would guess if we asked this question nationally, we’d get the same response,” Miller says. “People want their local governments to make the decisions to be able to control gas development for them.”   

Such efforts to ban fracking are viewed as a threat by the oil and gas industry, which in New York at least, has so far struggled to overturn them in the courts. 

“I don’t think that an effort like this will succeed in Colorado,” says Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

She says a patchwork of bans here or different laws there makes it nearly impossible for the companies she represents to do business.  That’s why she says the state created a uniform set of oil and gas regulations in 2009.

“It would be unfortunate to say, I want to use these products, but I’m not willing to have them produced here, I want them produced in another town or another county or another state,” Schuller says.

Not in my Backyard

Back in Longmont, Peter Champe is sensitive to charges of “NIMBYism.”

“We are not a radical, activist movement that wants to return civilization to a horse and buggy era,” he says. 

But Champe notes the highly contentious 2009 rewrite of oil and gas regulations COGA is referring to occurred before the highly industrial process of fracking was spreading to the suburbs and even densely populated cities like his along the Front Range.

His group also plans to argue that a “home rule charter” city like Longmont should be able to pass laws to protect its citizens.

The home rule law is vague when it comes to whether or not oil and gas drilling might apply to this.

“Laws are meant to be challenged, that is part of the American Democratic system, particularly bad laws.

Also standing in the way of that possible challenge are a number of hurdles that Champe and his group must get past; the main one is to gather some 7,000 signatures of registered Longmont voters in order to secure a spot on the November ballot.

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