Broomfield residents stuck in their homes during the ongoing coronavirus shutdown won’t be getting a reprieve from nearby oil and gas drilling, not after the Broomfield City Council abandoned efforts to bring a temporary halt to operations in the face of an uphill legal battle.
At a meeting on April 8, councilmembers voted 9-1 to shelve plans for an emergency public-health order that would have barred Extraction Oil and Gas, the operator of a drilling site near residential subdivisions along the Northwest Parkway toll road, from conducting “flowback” operations while residents are under stay-at-home orders.
“We simply don’t have the funds right now to gamble on what we’ve been told is a losing bet,” councilmember Stan Jezierski said during a special meeting of the city’s board of health. “I think the residents need to be sure that we are [watching], and will continue to watch, Extraction’s operations closely as things progress in the future.”
Flowback is one of the nastiest parts of oil and gas production, a volatile drilling phase during which a fluid mix of hydrocarbons and other toxic chemicals surges to the surface from deep underground. The flowback process can last for months, and studies have shown that it’s typically more responsible for higher emissions of air toxins such as benzene than any other production phase.
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With flowback operations set to begin this month at the Livingston Pad, a drilling site in north Broomfield, residents and many councilmembers initially supported issuing an order putting them on hold. Of particular concern was the fact that the site is just across the road from the over-55 community of Anthem Ranch, where many residents under Governor Jared Polis’s stay-at-home order are at higher risk for respiratory issues.
Before Broomfield even issued an order, though, Extraction challenged the city in state court and obtained a temporary restraining order against any such action. While District Court Judge Robert Kiesnowski dissolved that restraining order earlier this week, he warned Broomfield officials not to act in “a manner that is contrary to constitutional rights or privileges or is arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to combating the spread of COVID-19.”
While Broomfield City Council members rejected the notion that their proposed health order was “arbitrary and capricious,” they said at the meeting that the advice they'd received from multiple attorneys was that the city was unlikely to prevail in court. State regulators didn’t help the city’s cause, with Jeff Robbins, the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, publicly casting doubt on whether suspending flowback operations was necessary.
Environmental activists have criticized the COGCC for continuing to approve new oil and gas activity during the coronavirus pandemic, even as the agency has paused the implementation of rules required by Senate Bill 181, a recently enacted health and safety law. As a result, a coalition of 24 environmental and social-justice groups submitted a petition on April asking Polis to order a halt to all oil and gas drilling "until the pandemic is contained in Colorado."
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"We are living in the midst of a global pandemic resulting in severe respiratory illness and even death at alarmingly high rates, and research shows that air pollution from fossil fuel activities such as fracking, oil refining, and coal-burning greatly increases our risk of severe outcomes," Micah Parkin, executive director of advocacy group 350 Colorado, said in a statement outlining the petition demands. "Many businesses that increase public risk are being asked to shut down during this pandemic, and fossil fuel companies should be no exception."
A study published this week by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that even small increases in local air pollution can lead to significantly increased risk of death from COVID-19. Analyzing data from more than 3,000 U.S. counties, researchers found that an increase of only one microgram per cubic meter of fine-particle pollution can raise an area's COVID-19 death rate by 15 percent.
Like many other Coloradans living in close proximity to oil and gas development, residents near the Livingston Pad and several other fracking sites operated by Extraction in Broomfield have reported headaches, respiratory problems and other negative health impacts from nearby drilling. More than 55 complaints were lodged against Extraction by Broomfield residents over the first three months of this year, according to COGCC data.
"I will continue to challenge the system that is so stacked against us," said councilmember Guyleen Castriotta, who, like several of her colleagues, ran for council on a promise to fight back against neighborhood drilling. "It is unfortunate that our court system doesn't recognize the suffering of our people. The system isn't designed to protect our people, and the current health-order language wouldn't survive the system."