Fracking A Public Health Threat
Fracking isn’t new to the Rocky Mountains. The oil industry drilled its first fracking well near Boulder in 1901. The practice gained notoriety in the state with the infamous oil shale project near Parachute several decades ago, but it collapsed and remained dormant for years. Since then, fracking has become a modern day gold rush for many people in Colorado. It’s been a nightmare for others.
Unfortunately, health and safety concerns continue to take a back seat in public policy and private practice. The debate is gaining momentum again as oil prices and drilling activity rebound at a rapid pace.
Today, oil and gas companies continue concentrating the majority of their drilling in Weld County near Greeley and Garfield County near Rifle. Weld County taps into the Niobrara Shale Foundation, which also covers portions of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The second largest area in Colorado for fracking is in Garfield County, which gets its resources from the Piceance Basin. The Piceance Basin is thought to have one of the richest and thickest oil shale deposits in the world. Because Colorado is isolated from the major refining centers, producers must absorb a $12-$14 per barrel discount to cover transportation costs.
Fossil Fuels vs. Technology
- Colorado accounts for almost 4 percent of U.S. total crude oil production and also holds about 4 percent of the nation’s proved crude oil reserves;
- Colorado has the sixth largest natural gas reserves, and 11 of the nation’s 100 biggest natural gas fields are located in the state;
- Electricity from renewable sources has more than doubled since 2010 to around 20 percent of Colorado’s net electricity generation in 2016, led by increased wind power from the state’s roughly 1,900 turbines;
- Colorado leads the nation in gross withdrawals of coal-bed methane from producing wells; and
- In 2016, Colorado was ranked 10th for installed solar power capacity and 11th in the nation for actual solar electricity generation.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Center (EIA), Colorado’s production of crude oil surged in 2010. Since then, production has more than tripled in the last five years–peaking in August 2015 at 357 thousand barrels per day (kbd). Subsequently, there was a decrease in production when oil prices crashed from $100 per barrel to $26 per barrel, but the market is rising fast. EIA’s latest Colorado production data from April 2017 puts production at 352 kbd (up from 317 kbd in 2016). A recent economic report prepared by the Business Research Division of the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association found that oil and gas development added $31.7 billion to Colorado’s economy in 2014.
Colorado already is dotted with hydraulic fracking wells/ More are on the way. This growth is reviving the turmoil that accompanied the last boom, pitting neighbors against neighbors and communities against corporations. It’s also reviving talk about collusion, corruption and public policy that ignores public opinion, public health and public safety.
Concerned residents who live near these areas are worried about groundwater contamination, chemical exposure, air pollution impacts, and fracking-induced earthquakes. They also have concerns about industrial accidents. As such, fracking is a major issue at the ballot box in Colorado. Both opponents and supporters try to influence the outcomes.
- In 2012, the city of Longmont passed an initiative that put an indefinite ban on fracking;
- In 2013, the city of Lafayette approved a similar measure;
- In 2013, Broomfield, Boulder and Fort Collins passed initiatives that imposed five-year fracking suspensions;
- In 2014, the city of Loveland defeated an initiative to suspend fracking for two years;
- In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court denied local governments the right to make home rules on fracking. So much for decentralized government and citizen-based democracy.
In few places is the tension more evident than along Colorado’s Front Range, where a fracking boom is colliding with a population explosion. Drilling applications in the state have risen 70 percent in just a year, while the area north of Denver is expected to double in population by 2050.
In Weld County — the center of the state’s oil and gas activity and home to more than 23,000 active wells — that tension has converged at a school called Bella Romero Academy. Just behind the school, workers are laying the foundation for a 24-well project that will pull oil and gas from the earth as students race across the playground.
The project has the support of state regulators and the county commission. But it is opposed by the school board, the superintendent and many parents, some of whom say they support fossil fuel development but are alarmed by such a large operation so close to their school. Oil and gas rigs will churn just 828 feet from the edge of Bella Romero Academy.
But Extraction does not have a spotless record, and in December an explosion at one of its operations turned into a fire that raged for hours, badly burning a worker and requiring assistance from at least eight emergency agencies. It capped a year of deadly industry incidents in the county, including an explosion that killed a homeowner and his brother-in-law in April 2017; an oil tank blaze that killed a worker last May; and a pipeline fire that killed an industry employee in November. The fires have heightened safety concerns. Activists have staged protests outside the school. Environmental groups and other stakeholders are suing the state over the project.
Meanwhile, stakeholders are watching an upcoming Colorado Supreme Court ruling where justices will decide if state regulators must prioritize public health and the environment when approving fracking permits, rather than overlooking those factors for the sake of industry profits. If the the state must consider health first, the ruling could change the landscape of the industry and the state.
Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA continues to muddy the waters on state and federal rules and regulations. In 2008, for example, residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas received a notice in the mail advising them to drink bottled water instead of tap water — a move that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) internal memos at the time described as “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”
State officials in Pennsylvania allowed oil and gas producers to dump thousands of gallons of wastewater at local sewer plants — facilities incapable of removing the complex mix of chemicals, corrosive salts, and radioactive materials. This highly toxic water was then pumped from the wastewater treatment plant and back into Pennsylvania’s rivers—where it becomes drinking water again.
The heaviest elements settled into the sewage sludge, which was subsequently dumped on farms, fields, forests and playgrounds far and wide.
Eight years after the Pittsburgh incident, in 2016, the EPA finished writing the rules that would stop that kind of failure from reoccurring, specifically forbidding sewage treatment plants from accepting untreated wastewater from oil and gas wells. It took eight years to plug one loophole. Hundreds more remain, while humans, livestock and wildlife are serving as the guinea pigs–again.
Meanwhile, 52 percent of voters in Colorado support Proposition 112, which would require new oil and gas wells to be at least 2,500 feet away from buildings. (Unfortunately, it failed.)
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