Longform

How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

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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."

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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.

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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