Longform

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.