Does Denver Have a Fracking Problem?

On a freakishly warm Tuesday in February, a group of activists gathered downtown to announce that they are bringing their anti-fracking campaign to Denver. More specifically, they are bringing it to Hizzoner, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, urging him to impose a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the city to stall the march of rigs that could end up on the doorstep of his own neighborhood, Green Valley Ranch. 

It would be easy to dismiss this latest round of fractivism as a protest on the margins, the usual bunch of tree-huggers lamenting that Colorado's blue skies and precious watersheds are under assault from heavy industry. The Denver Post brushed the protesters off in a huffy editorial, declaring that their proposal is "not a responsible contribution to the debate." And it's true that the call for a moratorium was pretty much the same call to action we've heard in other communities, from Broomfield to Fort Collins and points between — complete with tributes to Colorado's great outdoors, quotations from Chief Seattle about the web of life, and so on. 

But take a closer look. This isn't Longmont or Boulder. This is Denver, bub, and the anti-fracking movement here has a few twists that might pose some tough choices for Hancock down the line. For one thing, the groups supporting the Don't Frack Denver push are a more diverse bunch than what you're likely to see elsewhere in the state; they range from Greenpeace and the Colorado Progressive Coalition to Padres & Jovenes Unidos and African-American residents of Green Valley Ranch concerned about health, future air quality and property values. 

This is a big deal for several reasons. For years, environmentalists have struggled to overcome Reagan-era caricatures of them as granola-chewing, backpacking elitists — overwhelmingly white, and out of touch with economic reality because they lived in places like Boulder or Aspen. The emergence of the environmental justice movement over the last twenty years, though, has shown the high degree to which lower-income and minority-dominated communities have suffered the worst impacts from industrial pollution in urban areas. And Green Valley Ranch — a community with a wide range of incomes and housing stock, and a population that's roughly one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic — may be the most diverse community yet to face the challenge of fracking in Colorado. 

The challenge is real. Oakwood Homes, the developer behind the master-planned development, retained mineral rights to its properties and has already quietly leased land for drilling in Aurora, across Picadilly Road from Green Valley Ranch. The land was originally leased to Anadarko Petroleum, which has applied for drilling permits across much of that area (see map). But Anadarko has since shifted the leases nearest to GVR to Conoco Phillips, possibly out of concern about community opposition. 

Much of the speechifying at Tuesday's Don't Frack Denver rally had to do with the potential threat to the South Platte if the BLM grants drilling leases in South Park. But any decision on that issue is years away, and some of the concerns over water quality seemed hypothetical at best. (One handout, evidently aimed at the hipster vote, stressed that fracking is "bad for beer" and "threatens Denver's iconic craft breweries.") The more urgent issue, perhaps, has to do with the possible impacts to residents of Green Valley Ranch if rigs start showing up across the road — and how Hancock will handle the arrival of the industry in his own back yard, the community he's praised for years and declined to leave, despite the long commute to the City and County Building. 

At present Hancock has a fistful of reasons not to endorse the idea of a moratorium on drilling. Other cities that have sought to ban fracking have faced legal challenges from the industry as well as the state. Hancock can point to the 76 wells operating at Denver International Airport as proof that fracking already goes on at the city's fringes, with hardly a hiccup of protest. And what first-term mayor would be eager to alienate his allies in the business community — including Pat Hamill, the founder and CEO of Oakwood Homes and a longtime Hancock booster? 

But things change. If the fractivists can enlist grass-roots support in Green Valley Ranch, that could put Hancock in a highly uncomfortable posture. Denver may not have much of a fracking problem yet, but the mayor could have one soon. 

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast