Extraction Oil and Gas, the third-largest oil and gas producer in Colorado in 2019, filed for bankruptcy on June 14. The company had $11.7 billion in long-term debt, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Extraction has also collected many concerns and complaints from activists and residents living around the company's fracking facilities. Therese Gilbert, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Heath Middle School in Greeley, notes that plugging up wells can be a very expensive process — up to $300,000 per well — and she’s worried that there’s not enough money to take care of what an Extraction bankruptcy might leave behind.
Gilbert is a member of Weld Air and Water, a group of citizens fighting oil and gas development in Weld County since 2011. “It's been a long, arduous effort, often putting members of WAW against their neighbors and their employers,” she says.
Nathalie Eddy, Colorado and New Mexico field advocate for Earthworks, worries that Extraction Oil and Gas's financial woes may increase risk for Colorado communities. “The concern as operators are beginning to declare bankruptcy is that safety and environmental assurances are sometimes the first to be cut,” she explains. “And the communities are going to continue to pay the price of having Extraction as a neighbor.”
“Can we count on a bankrupt company to take care of those wells if they end up abandoning them?” Gilbert asks. “Who’s going to pay to plug those wells eventually?”
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In March 2017, the state approved permits for Extraction Oil and Gas wells to be drilled less than 700 feet from the playground of Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, despite a series of protests and even a lawsuit filed to stop the fracking from moving forward.
Patricia Nelson found out about the wells six months before her now-seven-year-old son enrolled at the school. “My son has asked me, if something happens, if he and his friends are going to be okay," she says. "And no one can tell me that they’re going to be okay. And that’s the scariest thing to me.”
On June 21, Nelson and other members of the Bella Romero Academy community delivered a petition with over 1,000 signatures to the Governor Jared Polis's office, demanding that the governor shut down the fracking wells located behind the school and that the state adopt protective measures to increase monitoring near schools.
The group waited until Father's Day to submit the demands. “Polis is a parent, and that’s a commonality," Nelson says. "We’re both parents.”
Parents, teachers and other community members had started gathering signatures the week before spring break, before the school was closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Initial support was strong, Nelson recalls, with the effort collecting over forty signatures in twenty minutes. After Polis issued his stay-at-home order, the petition moved online.
Nelson hopes that the substantial support for the petition's demands will spur Polis to take action. When she sent his office a letter in December asking for the wells to be shut down, she received a response telling her to reach out to the COGCC, which redirected her to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Nobody is taking responsibility,” she says. “What it comes down to is that Polis is responsible for all these agencies. If nothing happens, or something worse happens, it’s his responsibility.”
On June 23, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill released a statement from the governor's office: “Protecting the air we breathe is a top priority for the Governor, especially for those Coloradans disproportionately impacted by air pollution. We’re pleased that Extraction has withdrawn their undeveloped permits at Bella Romero. There is no drilling or hydraulic fracturing remaining. CDPHE will continue to perform air monitoring and take steps to improve air quality to ensure the protection of the health and safety of students at Bella Romero school.”
Nelson knew that drilling had stopped at Bella Romero Academy, but she is calling on Polis to completely shut down the operation. "Until those wells are plugged and sealed, our children will still be at risk. Anything can go wrong," she says.
Opponents of the wells decided to go the petition route after 350 Colorado released a report, prepared by Barrett Engineering PLLC, revealing disturbing levels of benzene on school grounds. Benzene is a known carcinogen and hazardous air pollutant, 350 Colorado noted when it released the report on March 11.
The report used data from the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division's monitoring system, which measured hourly hydrocarbon pollution concentrations for both one-hour and eight-hour periods at Bella Romero Academy in 2019. According to 350's analysis, benzene concentrations exceeded the eight-hour safe standard for benzene — established by the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment — 113 times between October and December. Those high measurements overlapped with school days on October 16, November 5, December 4 and December 18, 2019.
And Nelson notes that the monitor wasn’t collecting samples continually. “From May through December, when they had the air monitor at school, it was only collecting samples half the time," she says. "It’s possible that it happened even more times that we don’t even know about."
The 350 Colorado report urges APCD to create a comprehensive monitoring system with warning alerts at both the one-hour and eight-hour safe levels. “Prohibitions are not in place that assure that adjacent well pads will not produce impacts at even greater rates in future days of Academy attendance,” it states.
Micah Parkin, executive director and co-founder of 350 Colorado, says that the group had a meeting in March with CDPHE representatives to present the findings of the report, but received no response.
According to 350 Colorado, the CDPHE relied on one of the least protective Environmental Protection Agency standards when it released a statement about fracking operations by Bella Romero Academy on November 29, 2019. CDPHE used a 24-hour EPA standard of nine parts per billion and ignored the more stringent eight-hour standard of .994 parts per billion, developed for settings like schools. People regularly visit for eight-hour periods, so it makes sense to use the latter standard, according to Julia Williams, communications and development director at 350 Colorado.
While there are more than 60,000 wells in Colorado, the CDPHE hasn’t adopted a standard for Colorado’s oil drilling operations, Williams points out. According to CDPHE’s 24-hour standard, there was only one concerning benzene measurement by Bella Romero, while 350 Colorado’s more stringent standard reported 113. “There is no safe level of benzene. There is no reason that these wells should be next to schools or homes or hospitals when we have cleaner energy sources that we could be promoting and building,” Williams says.
Bella Romero's 1,164 students come from mostly immigrant and mixed-status households, Nelson notes; 89 percent are Hispanic. The parents of many of the students work in the oil and gas industry.
The Greeley school board did not formally oppose the drilling at Bella Romero until January 2018, when it was already too late to take action, says Nelson. She attributes the board’s slow response to the high number of parents working in the oil and gas field, who need their income from the industry.
But they also need to know that their children are healthy. “The fact that the CDPHE is just cherry-picking standards that will represent the data in the best light is not fair to the families of Bella Romero,” Williams says. “It’s not giving the full picture of what’s happening there, and they have a right to know.”
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In May 2013, the COGCC was granted a permit to place 67 wells behind Frontier Air Academy, a charter school in Greeley; after Weld Air and Water notified parents, pushback put an end to that proposal. In March 2017, the COGCC moved the permits across town to Bella Romero. “The de facto environmental racism is true,” Therese Gilbert says. “What makes the situation at Bella egregious is that those little kids don’t have a choice but to attend that school.”
Although Extraction's activities by the school may have stopped, that does not mean that the grounds are safe, Gilbert adds: “Yes, they’re not drilling and fracking anymore, but the wells are still producing. Our feeling is that wells can still leak while they’re producing. There are probably leaks going on all the time."
Nelson's niece and nephew also attend Bella Romero; they have health problems that doctors can't explain but that she attributes to the wells. “I just tell my sister to not let them go outside. There’s really no other way to protect our kids than to just leave them inside,” she says.
“We just can’t create a safe playing environment when there’s a massive industrial site right next door. It’s impossible,” she concludes. “No other industry can get this close to kids and have it be okay.”