How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars
At the Denver premiere of the film Dear Governor Hickenlooper last month, there were no stretch limos, no red-carpet divas, no paparazzi or moguls in tuxedos. What you got instead, squeezed into the spartan confines of the Oriental Theater, were auteurs in old jeans and ball caps, a modest concession in anti-fracking T-shirts, and people hovering with clipboards, offering petitions or volunteer sign-up sheets.
A compilation of eleven shorts by Colorado filmmakers, Dear Governor Hickenlooper is a polemical, what-the-hell-are-they-doing-to-us savaging of the state's booming fossil-fuel industry and its use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the process of pumping vast amounts of water and sand mixed with toxic chemicals into tight shale formations to extract oil and gas. In the tradition of Gasland, the 2010 documentary that galvanized the anti-fracking movement nationwide, the film is by turns clinical and alarmist, instructive and emotional, earnest and inflamed.
And clever. The opening animated sequence, a kind of primer in the hydromechanics of fracking and the disposal of the contaminated wastewater underground, manages to present the whole process as a kind of loony science experiment. Another segment looks back ruefully at Project Rulison, a 1969 effort to blast natural gas out of the Western Slope with the aid of a forty-kiloton nuclear bomb. The project failed — the gas produced was too radioactive to market — and the clear implication of this history lesson is that current shale-extraction methods aren't all that foolproof, either.
Another segment visits a Weld County family who's living in the basement of their home — because, the father explains, they can no longer endure the noise and harsh chemical odors emanating from nearby well pads. "You should be able to choose to not live next to an oil well," he tearfully declares. A sly coda to the film features a smooth-talking man trying to persuade a woman to engage in some unnamed intimate act with him, insisting that he "needs this," but she won't yield.
"It's a trust thing," she responds. "There are no guarantees. Fracking is just too risky."
The partisan crowd at the Oriental hooted and applauded at all the right moments. When it was over, the film's producers and leaders of fractivist groups took the stage to exhort and field questions. Director Stash Wislocki described the film as not simply an effort to entertain, but as a recruiting tool to get people to "sign up and knock on doors."
"We're hoping this is the beginning of a movement," declared Allison Wolff, one of the film's producers and a founder of Frack Free Colorado, a nonprofit that coordinates events with several local, statewide and national anti-fracking groups.
Other speakers held forth on the mounting evidence of groundwater contamination from well-pad spills and recent studies that found links between proximity to drilling and health problems, ranging from endocrine disruption to birth defects. Some wondered whether the injection wells used to store fracking fluids deep underground after their use, described as "oceans of toxic waste under your feet in Colorado," could have caused two recent earthquakes in Greeley. Mostly, though, they urged the audience to get involved in the ongoing, multi-front effort to gain more local control over the regulation of oil and gas drilling in Colorado.
Dear Governor Hickenlooper will be headed for film festivals this summer. It will also be showing up at community screenings all over the state, put together by a loose-knit but well-organized cadre of more than a dozen anti-fracking groups. "We're providing it to every nonprofit group that wants it," Wolff says.
The film may not be ready for Cannes, but it does represent a potent new weapon for local fractivists — a group that, over the past year or so, has grown increasingly savvy and resolute in its efforts to put the brakes on Colorado's far-flung frack zones. Bolstered by emerging research that suggests that the adverse impacts of oil and gas development are more extensive than previously reported, as well as last fall's floods — which exposed the vulnerability of wastewater storage sites — fractivists were able to achieve a clean sweep in local-control campaigns last November, as voters in four Front Range communities passed ballot measures imposing a moratorium on new drilling. Some of the same players are now racing to get a slew of citizen initiatives on the statewide ballot this year, calling for greater setbacks from residential areas and more local control; one measure even seeks to assert the primacy of community rights over "state pre-emption" and "corporate power."
The staggering array of proposals is a good indication of how the anti-fracking movement has expanded across the state, with increasingly ambitious and divergent aims. But that growth hasn't come without considerable pushback from the industry and its allies. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and national lobbying groups have poured millions of dollars into pro-fracking educational and political campaigns, leading to a proliferation of issue committees or advocacy groups with nifty acronyms such as CRED (Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development) and LEAP (Loveland Energy Action Project). Two weeks ago, an effort to impose a two-year moratorium on new oil and gas drilling in Loveland was narrowly defeated, after an election campaign in which LEAP reportedly outspent the backers of the measure on a scale of at least forty to one.
The spin on the Loveland vote from both sides was predictably bellicose. "Loveland Voters Tell Extremists: Take a Hike," declared a press release from Protecting Colorado's Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, a recently formed issue committee whose spokesperson is former Denver Post reporter Karen Crummy. "Loveland Voters Choose Opportunity Over Moratorium," burbled CRED.
"Oil and Gas Industry Buys Colorado Fracking Election," responded Gary Wockner, former Colorado director of Clean Water Action, on the environmental blog EcoWatch.
For weeks, John Hickenlooper, the dear governor invoked in Wislocki's documentary, has been in discussions with lawmakers about the prospects for a special legislative session to hammer out a "compromise bill" that would address at least some of the concerns raised in the proposed ballot measures. Hickenlooper has made no secret of his displeasure with what he considers efforts to undermine the state's authority to regulate oil and gas operations; the state is suing Longmont over its 2012 ban on fracking, while COGA and other industry interests have filed lawsuits challenging the anti-fracking measures that passed last year in Fort Collins, Lafayette and Broomfield.
But industry groups have been wary of Hickenlooper's proposed compromise bill, and it seems likely that most of the backers of the citizen initiatives will be out hustling signatures on petitions regardless of what the governor can achieve. That sets the stage for a gusher of fracking-related TV and radio commercials, mailers, websites, social-media campaigns, protests and rallies in the months to come.
Expect a national spotlight on the state's frack wars, along with some superheated rhetoric as the fractivists seek to make their case about the dangers of drilling — while under heavy attack from industry front groups, portraying them as a bunch of fear-mongering, tree-hugging radicals. Assuming that some of the petition initiatives gather enough signatures in the next three weeks to make the ballot, proponents say they expect COGA and other oil and gas heavyweights to spend from $8 million to $24 million on a blitz to defeat their proposals.
"That sounds unlikely," says Jon Haubert, the spokesman for CRED. "But I think you will see a commitment from the oil and gas industry to get involved and take these measures extremely seriously."
The extreme seriousness of the opposition is another sign of how the anti-fracking effort has matured in Colorado. Dear Governor Hickenlooper may end on a sardonic note, with a frack-crazy lothario trying to despoil a virtuous maiden, but the high-stakes battle over the state's energy future is no laughing matter.
"The movement has certainly changed in the last year," says Sam Schabacker, the regional director for Food and Water Watch. "It's bigger; it's more sophisticated. It's developing into a true social movement. People are beginning to realize that, if you want to protect your property and your family from a fracking well, you have no recourse other than to go to the ballot process."
The narrator — and, in many ways, protagonist — of Dear Governor Hickenlooper is Shane Davis, a former state park ranger who operates a blog called The Fractivist. The camera follows Davis around like a faithful pitbull as he prowls well sites, sniffs the air, inspects last fall's flood damage, rattles off figures about spills and emissions, and introduces the various short films. One segment is devoted to profiling him and his work as a self-proclaimed "data miner."
Although he has a background in biology, Davis is more of a guerrilla fighter than a dispassionate researcher. His conversation is peppered with references to "the oiligarchy" and the "gas-roots groups" that serve as apologists and fronts for the industry. He boasts about infiltrating the opposition's strategy sessions and declares, "I know who they're attacking by name and what they're spending. They can't hide anything from us." While he can hold forth at length on permitting requirements and violation records, he also has a penchant for the portentous sound bite. "Climate change was yesterday," he says. "We're in a climate crisis."
Over the past three years, Davis has become one of the most strident critics of not only the frackers, but also their regulators, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. In response to the clamor for local control, Hickenlooper routinely extols COGCC's requirements for oil and gas operators as among the toughest in the country, including strict new limits on methane emissions announced last fall. But some hardcore fractivists don't believe that fracking can be safely regulated, and even those who do point out that what's on paper doesn't necessarily translate into actual enforcement actions.
The COGCC has a reputation for heavily discounting the fines it imposes and has only seventeen well inspectors for more than 52,000 active wells. That's fewer bodies than the industry has been known to devote to lobbying the state legislature, and it means some wells may get inspected only once every three or four years. More than anything else, Davis's work, which draws heavily on the COGCC's own data regarding hazardous spills and other violations, has helped to call attention to the gulf between the state's much-touted regulatory scheme and the degree of environmental degradation occurring in the field.
Four years ago, Davis was working in marketing and living in Firestone when a neighbor asked him to check into a nearby fracking operation. After figuring out how to navigate the COGCC's not-so-user-friendly website, he set about developing ways to "data-mine" the well records. Alarmed by what he found there, he quit his job and became a full-time activist.
"I spent two years in complete solitude, just going through the information," Davis says. "The general public doesn't know how to acquire this information. I figured I had a moral obligation to expose it."
In a 2011 speech at the COGA annual meeting, Hickenlooper called the prospect of groundwater contamination from the fracking process itself "almost inconceivable," since the wells extend thousands of feet below aquifers, have multiple layers of cement and metal encasing the frack fluids, and are sealed after use. Yet among Davis's discoveries were state documents detailing a 2009 contamination of the Laramie-Fox Hills aquifer in Weld County by a failed production casing; thermagenic methane and toluene from the fracking operation had migrated nearly a thousand feet underground to a private water well. Eddy Oil was issued an "adjusted fine" of $46,200 for the violations.
Surface spills are, of course, considerably more common. Davis analyzed a thousand spill reports from Weld County over a nine-year period and found that 43 percent of the incidents resulted in some degree of groundwater contamination. He's also traced an explosion of a double-wide trailer to gas seepage from an orphaned well and found a playground built on top of an industrial waste pit.
Davis started posting his findings on an anonymous blog, wtfrack.org, and then The Fractivist. He developed a PowerPoint slide show and put 70,000 miles on his car in eighteen months, shlepping his data lode to community gatherings across the region. His research is frequently cited by anti-fracking groups and reviled by industry sources, who denounce it as distorted and biased. Davis says his findings are irrefutable because they're based on the state's own records. As in many fracking disputes, the interpretation of the data is just as much at issue as the data itself.
Last September's floods in northern Colorado brought Davis to the attention of the national media. He took journalists to waterlogged well pads and storage sites, pointing out buckled condensate tanks and busted pipes. The fractivists were accused of exploiting the disaster and overstating the amount of possible pollution from flood-swamped drilling sites; public health officials found that the few dozen releases of oil or "produced water" posed no threat to drinking supplies and expressed far more concern about the millions of gallons of raw sewage carried by the flooding. But Davis says state authorities never acknowledged the true extent of the damage.
"They really don't know how much of these carcinogenic fluids were released," he says. "The industry was relying on systems that were completely inundated. There are about 60,000 miles of flow lines that are supposed to be three feet below the ground. In many cases, you could see that the flow lines were exposed, and they're not even inspecting that. It's morally reckless for the state to say they only spilled a few thousand gallons."
In any case, Davis doesn't think the flood coverage played that much of a part in the four ballot measures that passed last November, suspending the industry's ability to frack in Boulder, Fort Collins, Broomfield and Lafayette. "The floods really cast a light on the industry, but we'd already put out three years of information about the industry's failures," he says.
In Gasland, the money shot comes when a Weld County man sets the water flowing out of his kitchen faucet on fire, demonstrating that his drinking supply has been contaminated by methane. It's a powerful image that the industry has spent considerable time and expense debunking; a COGCC investigation concluded that the methane in the man's well was biogenic — naturally occurring — and not attributable to drilling operations. (That led to a rebuttal to the rebuttal from director Josh Fox, citing research that suggests fracking could be responsible for the migration of biogenic methane to well water.)
The money shot in Dear Governor Hickenlooper, to the extent that there is one, comes late in the film, when Davis holds up a bloody tissue. He's just finished visiting the Weld County family that's hunkered in their basement, and he announces that a few hours of exposure to the toxic atmosphere of their neighborhood has given him a nosebleed and a bad rash.
Asked about the scene, Davis explains that when he lived in Firestone, an area suffused with gas wells, he frequently suffered nosebleeds — and a tic in his cheek, and asthma-like symptoms.
"I lived in Weld County for two years," he says. "I had a bloody nose for a year and a half. I never told anybody because I couldn't go out and give a presentation and be the victim."
The person Davis would most like to talk to right now, about his data as well as his nosebleeds, is Governor Hickenlooper, who has complained that the anti-fracking activists don't communicate with him. Davis says he sought an audience and the governor's staff scheduled a meeting — then canceled again and again. (A spokesman for Hickenlooper said that a meeting with "someone" associated with the documentary was canceled when the governor's schedule changed.)
"It's a disservice to us all if he doesn't include us in that conversation," Davis says. "The invitation still exists. I invite the governor to sit down and talk. They need to look at their own failures to know why they failed."
Two years ago, Sharon Carlisle was one of a handful of residents who addressed the Loveland City Council about their concerns that the frenzied fracking activity in northeastern Colorado was creeping closer to town. A local artist who'd been working on an installation about the Manhattan Project, Carlisle had lots of questions about the economic and health impacts of fracking near residential areas — questions her elected leaders didn't seem eager to answer.
"Our city council majority basically said, 'Is there anyone else concerned, or just you five or ten people?'" Carlisle recalls. "So we decided to do a citizen initiative."
Carlisle became the president of Protect Our Loveland, a grassroots group backing a two-year moratorium on fracking. But the process of getting to an election was much bumpier than in the other five Front Range towns that have approved similar measures. A last-minute challenge to the petition by Larry Sarner, a longtime resident and health-care lobbyist, turned into a lengthy court battle. (Sarner, who has acknowledged that COGA helped out with the "legal considerations" involved in the petition battle, announced plans to run for Congress this year against Representative Jared Polis, a vocal critic of fracking, but failed to make the Republican primary ballot.) Much to Carlisle's frustration, the delays kept the measure off the ballot last fall and led to a special election on the same date as the primary vote last month, a move that she believes confused voters.
"The city council majority made it very clear they didn't want this moratorium," she says. "They back anything the governor wants to do, even suing individual cities."
Campaign-finance reports filed shortly before the election indicate that Protect Our Loveland raised a few thousand dollars, mostly small checks from individual contributors of a hundred dollars or less. Heavily supported by COGA, LEAP spent $275,000 in one six-day period alone. Despite the huge funding imbalance, Carlisle's group lost the election by fewer than a thousand votes.
"Look what we're up against," Carlisle says. "What has happened to the democratic process? It's bought and paid for. Yet with all the corporate backing, all the stuff going on behind closed doors, we're never asked to the table — even though we're the ones affected by drilling. The industry is spending enormous amounts of money to make sure we don't have anything to say about what happens to us or the land where we live."
The slim margin of victory in Loveland, 52 to 48 percent, isn't all that surprising; polls have indicated that Coloradans are deeply divided about fracking. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last fall indicates that barely 51 percent of the state's citizens support fracking. Many of the skeptics may be more worried about property values and the disruption of having a drilling rig nearby than they are about ambient benzene levels; when the question is whether fracking is safe, the industry fares better, with a third of those surveyed saying it's unsafe and 56 percent calling it "very safe" or "somewhat safe."
At least some of the industry's local leaders have come to recognize that they can't ignore that division. Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Tisha Schuller has even cautioned her members against referring to the opposition as environmental nuts, stressing "constructive engagement" rather than all-out war ("The Insider," June 13, 2013). But that hasn't deterred out-of-state industry and political interests from seeking to portray people like Carlisle, and the local-control movement in general, as a cabal of fringe characters and carpetbagging, NIMBY elitists.
One early target of the outside spending has been Polis. The wealthy Democratic congressman was often at odds with the fossil-fuels lobby even before last summer, when the arrival of a gas rig across the road from his Weld County vacation home prompted him to dub himself the "poster boy" of fracking. A few weeks ago, in response to Polis's backing of several proposed ballot measures that would substantially increase the distances new well pads would have to be set back from adjoining property, the Log Cabin Republicans unleashed a barrage of satiric ads referring to "King Jared" and "Posh Polis" and accusing him of recklessly endangering thousands of Colorado jobs. Polis has indicated he might withdraw his support for the measures if he can get some tougher rules in Hickenlooper's compromise bill — a position that hasn't placated his opponents but has angered some fractivists, who regard any concession on the issue as a sellout.
Last month an even stranger full-page attack ad began running in Front Range newspapers. It portrays the typical fractivist as a begoggled geek with a colander strapped to his head, toting a handmade sign demanding LOCAL CONTROL. The ad claims that "anti-energy activist groups reject basic science" and "can't get their facts straight" — and refers the reader to a website for more information.
The ad is the work of the recently launched Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA — get it?), an arm of the Center for Organizational Research & Education, which is the brainchild of Berman & Company, a powerhouse Washington, D.C.-based public-relations firm known for running aggressive campaigns on behalf of major corporate clients in the food, beverage, tobacco and energy industries. EPA's declared mission involves "uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups," and Colorado fractivism has become one of its principal targets.
"Colorado is really in the news," says EPA spokeswoman Anastasia Swearingen. "It's ground zero for a new wave of activism. You've got people coming in from different places, working with the grassroots groups. We are not engaging in any way on the ballot issues or any legislation; we are focused on the activists themselves."
The EPA website, BigGreenRadicals.com, portrays Colorado's activists not simply as environmental nuts, but as interlopers, so-called "local" groups launched and operated by national environmental organizations based in New York and California. Frack Free Colorado is singled out as a Trojan horse, funneling money and marching orders from groups such as Water Defense, a nonprofit founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, and Food and Water Watch. This is news to Boulder native Allison Wolff, who started FFC with two other longtime Colorado residents; she says the group did make use of two former members of Water Watch's team in the 2013 ballot campaign, but has always been locally based.
"The idea that Frack Free Colorado is not local is ridiculous," says Wolff. "In some ways, it's a compliment that we're actually getting under their skin."
Schabacker says the site's accusations that the "supposedly hyper-local group" Protect Our Loveland was merely a tool of his organization, Food and Water Watch, and other national groups are also baseless. "We provided a meager amount of assistance to the grassroots group, and it's all been publicly disclosed," he says. "They're trying to smear anyone who's not in favor of putting fracking wells next to homes and schools."
The site also described Shane Davis as a "Sierra Club operative." After Davis pointed out that, while he is a former Sierra Club volunteer, he no longer has any ties with the group, the description was changed to "'a fracking-obsessed one-man army' who peddles false claims about oil and gas development."
"Everything in this [site] is completely inaccurate," Davis says. "But they know exactly what they're doing. This is real grassroots, and that's why they're having a hell of a time trying to kick our ass. Big Greens are so cumbersome. It's like a battleship — it takes a day to turn it around. We don't have time for that. These are real people, with real boots on real concrete, kicking some real ass."
But if the Big Green label doesn't quite fit, the industry forces are doing their best to marginalize the activists as raving socialists. Their chief exhibit is the edgiest of all the proposed ballot measures, Initiative 75, sponsored by the Colorado Community Rights Network, a fractivist group whose leaders bear nostalgic-sounding names like Lotus and Merrily. The consititutional amendment declares that the people's "inherent and inalienable right to self-government" grants communities the right to enact laws defining, altering or eliminating the ability of businesses to operate there.
"That's pretty extreme," says CRED's Haubert. "It's beyond oil and gas. It's any corporation doing business anywhere. You're going to have chambers of commerce and business roundtables drawn into that fight. That coalition is going to be very broad."
Initiative 75 has been blasted as a "takings" measure, one that prevents mineral-rights holders from making use of their property. The language of the measure is similar to that of the Lafayette ban on fracking that passed last November with 60 percent of the vote. But Lafayette City Councilwoman Merrily Mazza, the state coordinator for 75 — and who, along with her son Cliff Welmeng, has been a major organizer of the state community-rights group — says the initiative is an assertion of the rights of homeowners over those of big corporations.
"Somebody who holds mineral rights under my house can't blow up my house to get to it," she says. If a town the size of Lafayette loses just 5 percent of its housing-market value because of drilling activity, she adds, that amounts to at least an $80 million hit to local residents.
While Mazza views 75 as a powerful tool for communities under threat from extraction industries or factory farms, she rejects any suggestion that the measure would lead to impossible restrictions on other businesses as well. "City governments are totally dependent on sales taxes to function — to treat sewage, to treat water, to pave streets," she notes. "People in local communities have land uses, zoning authority. We can decide on our pot shops, liquor licenses, all of that stuff. Why is it that in the case of a very toxic industrial activity, we suddenly have no control at all?"
Davis, an enthusiastic supporter of 75, sees the community-rights movement as a logical response to the sense of powerlessness individual citizens feel about the fracking boom. "Over the past year, we realized this is not just an anti-fracking movement, it's a civil-rights movement," he says. "Our right to safety has been taken away from us. It's not that we're anti-capitalist; we're in favor of capitalism that doesn't infringe on our civil rights or our community rights. We're done playing around with the industry."
But the Front Range cities that have suspended or banned fracking have less to lose than other places that are more directly in the path of the boom, and it's not clear how the local-control proposals will play statewide. Industry forces are betting that voters care more about jobs than the fractivists' notion of civil rights. In crusading against the ballot measures as a form of economic catastrophe, the pro-fracking camp hasn't been shy about engaging in a bit of fear-mongering itself. Industry denunciations of Initiative 75, local control and the Polis-backed setbacks routinely claim that the oil and gas industry contributes nearly $30 billion a year to Colorado's economy and employs 110,000 people, but those figures are greatly inflated. They derive from a University of Colorado study that calculated the total direct, indirect, and "induced" economic impact of oil and gas activity in the state.
The 110,000 jobs figure, for example, includes not only the 5,000 people working on drilling rigs in the state but 68,000 involved in "extraction and support activities" — as well as thousands more who work in refineries, fuel distribution, and convenience stores that happen to sell gas.
The economic tremors of a vote against fracking would, it seems, be felt all the way to your local 7-Eleven.
Last year, newly elected state representative Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins, discovered that the scientific literature on the health risks of fracking was a lot skimpier than she'd expected. A biologist by training, Ginal could find only seven national studies in peer-reviewed journals and only six studies that focused on conditions specific to Colorado. Four of those centered on Garfield County; the other two essentially derived from the same data concerning two wells in Erie.
Ginal drafted a bill proposing a study of the health effects of the big gas play unfolding across the Front Range. The bill never made it out of committee.
This year, Ginal came back to the legislature with a similar bill. This one had the backing of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and it made it out of the House with bipartisan support — only to be shelved by the Senate appropriations committee.
Ginal was baffled by the degree of opposition the bill faced. Objections came not only from industry lobbyists and their Republican allies, but from chamber of commerce types and Democrats, too. There were qualms about the modest $500,000 cost of a two-and-a-half-year study, skepticism about the methods involved, hints that the whole business was a political hot potato.
"I do realize the importance of the oil and gas industry, but this is a quality-of-life issue," Ginal says. "We were simply trying to look at data to see if our communities are safe. I don't see why that would affect jobs at all. I don't care what side of the aisle you're on — health is important to everyone."
She insists that the bill's proposed analysis would have been strictly scientific and transparent, and that she'd been prompted to take action by so many citizen concerns and questions about fracking. "These people want answers," she says. "They see what's going on with the recent oil spill in the Poudre River, our only wild and scenic river, and the earthquake in Greeley. They want to know that the air they breathe and the water they drink is safe. If it's so safe, why are people lobbying so hard against this particular bill?"
COGA officials and other industry advocates say they're not opposed to more studies in principle but want to see them conducted in an unbiased fashion. "There have been a ton of studies," says Haubert. "Yes, you should have questions, but there are a lot of answers already out there. I don't think you have anyone in the industry saying that we've studied the issue enough. Ongoing studies are generally well received. But what we don't see happening from the scientific community is someone saying we have to have a time-out, we have to stop everything until we know more."
For years, the industry has touted a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency report that concluded that fracking poses little or no risk to water supplies. But whistleblower Wes Wilson, who left the agency in 2010 and regularly speaks at Colorado fractivist gatherings, says the final report downplayed many of the risks of the chemicals used in the process and was fine-tuned by a "peer review panel" dominated by former and current employees of the oil and gas industry.
"We do have groundwater contamination, but it's been covered up by non-disclosure agreements in lawsuit settlements," Wilson told the crowd at the Dear Governor Hickenlooper premiere. He also described the brine injected deep underground after fracking as "a long-term potential environmental hazard."
Since that 2004 report, there have been several studies that suggest the volatile organic chemicals released in oil and gas fields are far more plentiful, and hazardous, than previously believed. One National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysis of the Front Range found that benzene emissions related to oil and gas were seven times higher than previous government estimates. A study released last January by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health, sifting through data on 125,000 births in rural Colorado over a fourteen-year period, found an increased risk of birth defects — including a 30 percent hike in the risk of congenital heart defects — among families living in close proximity to oil and gas wells. That study was quickly disowned by state health officials as inconclusive and riddled with anomalies — just about as quickly as it was seized on by the fractivists as further justification for more wide-ranging health studies.
"I think it's shameful that Governor Hickenlooper would direct his state agencies to go on a war against science," says Schabacker. "They just dismissed that study out of hand. Something is going on there; it merits a thoughtful discussion and followup. Instead we saw the industry PR machine go into action and try to discredit the scientists."
Earthquakes, too, have become another front in the battle. There is no evidence that fracking itself causes earthquakes, but the process of pumping the wastewater into abandoned wells has been linked to quakes in places across the West and Midwest that generally don't see significant seismic activity. A study published by U.S. Geological Survey researchers in March indicates that a 5.7-magnitude earthquake in Oklahoma in 2011, the biggest quake in the state's history, may have been triggered by wastewater injection — and that a series of smaller, human-induced quakes may well trigger "a cascade of earthquakes" of greater intensity.
Last month, Greeley experienced two quakes — three weeks apart, but originating in the same area northeast of town. The 2.6- and 3.4-magnitude quakes were the first of any significance to strike the area in forty years, prompting the COGCC to order the shutdown of one injection well while seismologists gather more information.
The industry's advocates describe fracking as a safe and proven process that's been around for sixty years. The fractivists maintain that the fracking of the past doesn't compare to what's taking place now in Colorado — that not enough is known about the impact of such widespread oil and gas development so close to schools and residences, using such elaborate brews of fracking fluid and having to dispose of hundreds of millions of gallons of water so tainted it can never be used again.
Proponents of natural gas, including the Obama administration, tout it as a "bridge fuel" to a cleaner energy future, pushing for the conversion of coal-fired power plants to gas as a substantial step toward reducing carbon emissions and battling climate change. The fractivists maintain that it's a bridge to nowhere, citing recent data that indicates leaks in gas pipelines and other infrastructure issues may be contributing far more methane to the atmosphere than previously estimated.
The fractivists' proposed alternative future is detailed in one segment of Dear Governor Hickenlooper, focusing on the work of Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who recently unveiled a plan for conversion of the American energy grid from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable sources by 2050. Shane Davis claims that Colorado could get out of the fossil-fuel business even sooner by hiking energy severance taxes, which are lower than those charged by many neighboring states, and devoting the revenue to solar and wind development. "We can transition out of this quickly," he says.
The coming election season could be a turning point, a moment of decision in a charged atmosphere of big money and big talk, scare tactics and spin control. Davis isn't worried. As he sees it, it still comes down to real boots on real concrete.
"Personal sacrifice will beat their money every time," he says. "It's just a matter of time until we can shut down the industry."
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