Longform

How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

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"I do realize the importance of the oil and gas industry, but this is a quality-of-life issue," Ginal says. "We were simply trying to look at data to see if our communities are safe. I don't see why that would affect jobs at all. I don't care what side of the aisle you're on — health is important to everyone."

She insists that the bill's proposed analysis would have been strictly scientific and transparent, and that she'd been prompted to take action by so many citizen concerns and questions about fracking. "These people want answers," she says. "They see what's going on with the recent oil spill in the Poudre River, our only wild and scenic river, and the earthquake in Greeley. They want to know that the air they breathe and the water they drink is safe. If it's so safe, why are people lobbying so hard against this particular bill?"

COGA officials and other industry advocates say they're not opposed to more studies in principle but want to see them conducted in an unbiased fashion. "There have been a ton of studies," says Haubert. "Yes, you should have questions, but there are a lot of answers already out there. I don't think you have anyone in the industry saying that we've studied the issue enough. Ongoing studies are generally well received. But what we don't see happening from the scientific community is someone saying we have to have a time-out, we have to stop everything until we know more."

For years, the industry has touted a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency report that concluded that fracking poses little or no risk to water supplies. But whistleblower Wes Wilson, who left the agency in 2010 and regularly speaks at Colorado fractivist gatherings, says the final report downplayed many of the risks of the chemicals used in the process and was fine-tuned by a "peer review panel" dominated by former and current employees of the oil and gas industry.

"We do have groundwater contamination, but it's been covered up by non-disclosure agreements in lawsuit settlements," Wilson told the crowd at the Dear Governor Hickenlooper premiere. He also described the brine injected deep underground after fracking as "a long-term potential environmental hazard."

Since that 2004 report, there have been several studies that suggest the volatile organic chemicals released in oil and gas fields are far more plentiful, and hazardous, than previously believed. One National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysis of the Front Range found that benzene emissions related to oil and gas were seven times higher than previous government estimates. A study released last January by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health, sifting through data on 125,000 births in rural Colorado over a fourteen-year period, found an increased risk of birth defects — including a 30 percent hike in the risk of congenital heart defects — among families living in close proximity to oil and gas wells. That study was quickly disowned by state health officials as inconclusive and riddled with anomalies — just about as quickly as it was seized on by the fractivists as further justification for more wide-ranging health studies.

"I think it's shameful that Governor Hickenlooper would direct his state agencies to go on a war against science," says Schabacker. "They just dismissed that study out of hand. Something is going on there; it merits a thoughtful discussion and followup. Instead we saw the industry PR machine go into action and try to discredit the scientists."

Earthquakes, too, have become another front in the battle. There is no evidence that fracking itself causes earthquakes, but the process of pumping the wastewater into abandoned wells has been linked to quakes in places across the West and Midwest that generally don't see significant seismic activity. A study published by U.S. Geological Survey researchers in March indicates that a 5.7-magnitude earthquake in Oklahoma in 2011, the biggest quake in the state's history, may have been triggered by wastewater injection — and that a series of smaller, human-induced quakes may well trigger "a cascade of earthquakes" of greater intensity.

Last month, Greeley experienced two quakes — three weeks apart, but originating in the same area northeast of town. The 2.6- and 3.4-magnitude quakes were the first of any significance to strike the area in forty years, prompting the COGCC to order the shutdown of one injection well while seismologists gather more information.

The industry's advocates describe fracking as a safe and proven process that's been around for sixty years. The fractivists maintain that the fracking of the past doesn't compare to what's taking place now in Colorado — that not enough is known about the impact of such widespread oil and gas development so close to schools and residences, using such elaborate brews of fracking fluid and having to dispose of hundreds of millions of gallons of water so tainted it can never be used again.

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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