Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore says he made an "improper leap" last week in suggesting that anti-fracking activists are affluent and consequently unconcerned about rising energy costs. Those comments prompted jeers and scoldings from grassroots groups pushing for tougher regulation of the hydraulic fracturing process used in oil and gas drilling across the state, who described Lepore's criticism as wrong, "immensely hypocritical" and indicative of the COGCC's "cozy relationship" with the industry it regulates.
A former industry attorney and state assistant attorney general who became head of the COGCC last year, Lepore made his comments about fracking opponents last Tuesday at the Northern Colorado Energy Summit in Loveland -- a town that's become one of the Front Range battlegrounds over gas drilling, with a local group seeking to put a two-year fracking moratorium on the November ballot.
According to this account in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Lepore complained that the people who "storm city hall...armed with misinformation" tend to be wealthy enough to be indifferent to the rising cost of electricity.
As noted in my recent feature "The Insider," it's long been a contention of the natural gas industry that fracking -- which involves using massive amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals to extract gas from tight shale formations -- is not only environmentally safe but helps to keep energy costs down for the poor, compared to the use of coal or other fossil fuels.
Fracktivists took strong and immediate exception to Lepore's off-the-cuff characterization. Some said he sounded more like an industry flack than a public official. Others contested the idea that the people at anti-fracking rallies are all chablis-sipping elitists. While Aspen denizens may have more time for environmental causes of various stripes than typical working folks, opposition leaders say there are plenty of rural and small-town elements rallying in support of tougher local and state regulations.
Corrine Fowler of the Colorado Progressive Coalition responded that Lepore "has done nothing to address the increased drilling that is encroaching on lower-income communities and communities of color that hold little political power to protect their interests." Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action opined that the COGCC director "enjoyed financial success while serving as an attorney for oil and gas clients until he was appointed to his position, so it is immensely hypocritical for him to attack the very public he was appointed to serve."
"LEPORE GOES ALL ANTI-FRACKINATOR ON OUR ASSES," announced Peggy Tibbets on her blog, a mocking rumination on how people seeing their housing values decline in the oil patch must have been "duped by the rich" into protesting.
And Sam Schabacker, regional director of Food & Water Watch, piled on with a statement contending that "Mr. Lepore's comments are elitist and further demonstrate the cozy relationship Governor Hickenlooper's administration has with the oil and gas industry."
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By the end of the week, Lepore had had enough. He conceded to the Durango Herald that it probably was improper and an "overgeneralization" for him to characterize fracking opponents as well-heeled and indifferent to energy costs -- even though, he added, the impact on consumer energy prices doesn't come up nearly enough in the debate to suit him.
"I think my role is to listen and to engage and to be candid and to be open and to be responsive," Lepore told the newspaper. "I try hard to do that and probably don't bat a thousand."
And every once in a while, the job involves a bit of bioengineering: The extraction of foot from mouth.
More from our Environment archive: "Video: Fracking the cause of Fort Lupton's flaming faucet?"