National News

In Colorado, Fracking Is Back, and So Are the Battle Lines

Posted May 31, 2018 1:25 p.m. EDT

WELD COUNTY, Colo. — A new oil rig will rise behind a middle school in this sprawling county in the coming months, its slender tower bearing an announcement: fracking is back.

After a downturn that began in 2015, oil and gas production is booming again, and new projects are sprouting along U.S. freeways and padding government budgets, cheered by state legislatures, the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration.

But this growth is also spurring a return of the turmoil that accompanied the last boom, pitting neighbor against neighbor and communities against companies in a fight over which projects should be allowed to pierce the land.

In few places is that 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.

Well heads will sit 828 feet from the edge of Bella Romero property.

Exacerbating the conflict is a spate of deadly fires at industry sites in the county, as well as the company’s decision to place the wells near a school that is overwhelmingly black and Latino, after nixing a proposal near a mostly white school that drew protests from parents.

“It’s like they said, ‘Put it where the Mexicans live, over there it’s OK,'” said Yveth Haro, 42, whose son Elian, 10, is a student at Bella Romero. “Well I don’t think it’s OK.”

Brian Cain, a representative from Extraction Oil and Gas, the company developing the site, called this allegation “absurd.” He said that the company chose the location because its particular geography offers access to mitigating technologies — including a newly engineered “quiet fleet” of fracking engines — that would reduce the effect on the neighborhood.

Other sites, he said, “did not have all those critical characteristics.”

While oil and gas companies have long operated in Colorado, they flooded the region in the 2000s as increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, unlocked possibilities. By 2013, communities along the Front Range were pushing for control of their own backyards, enacting laws that tried to curb fracking near homes and playgrounds.

This culminated in 2016, when the Colorado Supreme Court shot down municipal fracking bans, saying that state power to regulate the industry trumped local measures.

The ruling emboldened producers, and today fights are raging between residents and operators over large-scale projects planned for Boulder County and the city of Broomfield, while companies are inundating regulators with applications to drill in some of the region’s most populous areas.

Unable to ban its way out fracking, the city of Longmont, north of Denver, recently agreed to pay $3 million to two companies so they would pack up and go away.

The conflicts come amid a population surge driven in part by outdoors-oriented millennials fleeing high-cost cities, and by industries like aerospace and finance. Much of that growth is in Denver, Boulder and the area to the north that happens to sit above fuel-rich shale.

At the same time, state oil and gas production is hitting record levels, with more on the way.

The uptick in production, however, comes at a time of political uncertainty. Gov. John Hickenlooper — a Democrat thought of as friendly to the industry — is term-limited this year, and liberal candidates are lining up to replace him. A leading contender is Jared Polis, a congressman well-known for his attempts to rein in drilling.

Already, oil and gas representatives are pouring millions into the race to defend a business they calculate contributes $32 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Just as important could be an upcoming Colorado Supreme Court ruling in which justices will decide whether state regulators must prioritize public health and the environment when approving permits, rather than balancing those factors with the benefits of production.

If the court decides the state must consider health first, said Sharon Jacobs, a law professor at the University of Colorado, it could have sweeping effects, raising the bar for new permits.

Or, depending on how regulators interpret the ruling, they could continue issuing permits as usual.

Weld County, with its patchwork of rolling green pastures and suburban clusters, is increasingly considered a Denver commuter shed, and it is now the fourth-fastest-growing community in the nation. It is also increasingly diverse, and school parking lots are jammed with deep-rooted farming families, Mexican immigrants and refugees from places like Burma and Somalia.

Bella Romero Academy, with its red-and-yellow brick walls and bilingual signs, teaches several hundred students in grades four to eight. The buffer zone between the school and the incoming oil project is the students’ soccer field and a drainage ditch.

The school is surrounded by homes. Longhorn cattle, llamas and goats live at its perimeter.

The fight over the project is complicated by the fact that the largely conservative county has benefited enormously from oil and gas, which has flooded the region with money and jobs and is embraced by much of the community.

While farming counties to the east are barely holding on, Weld is building roads, doling out scholarships and planning for a future beyond the fossil fuel rush. It has no debt and no sales tax and was recently deemed the nation’s “Taxpayer Friendliest Community” by the American City County Exchange.

Don Warden, the county’s finance director, called the shale below him “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Today, County Road 49 is so crowded with oil derricks and tanks that some residents call it the Frack Freeway. And while new wells may raise alarm elsewhere, they have become the norm in Weld, where fracking operations are tucked into neighborhoods and already border several schools.

“You’re talking to a person who lives within about 200 feet of a drilling operation,” said Barbara Kirkmeyer, a county commissioner. “If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t move in next to it.”

The project near Bella Romero, however, has exposed fissures, with even a few industry supporters saying that the combination of the operation’s size and proximity to students takes development too far.

Among the operation’s fiercest opponents is Patricia Nelson, 28, whose son Diego, 5, will attend Bella Romero when he reaches fourth grade.

“All I’m asking is that they keep it away from the schools, keep it away from the homes,” she said. “It’s getting to a point where the industry, I feel, is starting to cause more problems than what they’re worth.”

In response, the company has made “unprecedented accommodations,” said Cain, and will complete 80 percent of work outside school hours, employ a sound wall and a noise-minimizing drill rig, and pipe out oil and gas, rather than trucking it, reducing traffic and emissions. 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.

Cain called the episode an anomaly at a company with an otherwise admirable reputation for safety.

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.

Together, the fires have heightened safety concerns, and activists have staged protests outside the school, sometimes carrying flyers to educate parents, many of whom do not speak English.

Environmental groups and the NAACP Colorado State Conference are suing the state over the project, alleging that regulators erred in approving the permit.

Still, while some neighbors oppose the project, others do not.

“It really doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Shawn Elliott, 50, who lives next to Bella Romero.

Bert West, 81, another resident, agreed. “I think it’s wonderful. Everyone is screaming. But it’s jobs, and it’s money.”