The Year in Fracking: Quakes, Spills and Backroom Deals

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The battle over fracking in Colorado continued to attract national media attention in 2014, and with good reason. The use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas, and the attendant debate over economic benefits versus possible health and environmental risks, has been playing out here with more twists and turns than the bedsheets of an insomniac with night sweats. Here's a brief recap of some of the more earth-shaking moments in one of the most divisive political struggles of the past year.

See also: How Colorado Became Ground Zero in America's Energy Wars

The year began with antifracking activists riding high on the momentum of grass-roots campaigns to impose a moratorium or outright ban on new drilling in five Front Range municipalities. Despite being outspent by oil and gas interests by more than 30-1 -- and facing the threat of more litigation by Colorado's gas-friendly governor -- fractivists celebrated the passage of 2013 ballot measures prohibiting fracking in Boulder, Lafayette, Broomfield and Fort Collins. (Longmont had touched off the movement with its ban in 2012.) Organizers soon got busy on a range of petition initiatives seeking to tighten restrictions on fracking statewide.

Fractivists sought to bolster their arguments about the health risks of gas development with a new study prepared by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University, which found an increased risk of birth defects -- including a startling 30 percent hike in the risk of congenital heart defects -- among families living near oil and gas wells in rural Colorado. But the report was swiftly denounced as deeply flawed by industry advocates, and state health officials -- who supported the study and supplied much of the raw data -- called it "not conclusive."

An attempt by Representative Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins, to pass a bill requiring a new study of the health risks of fracking in four Front Range counties, supervised by a "scientific oversight committee," subsequently went down to defeat amid complaints that the study would be biased, or too political in nature.

In the absence of Ginal's proposed study, environmental groups turned increasingly to mining the industry's own data. In May the Center for Western Priorities unveiled the Western Toxic Release Map, which plots oil and natural gas spills in Colorado and New Mexico over more than a decade -- more than 13,500 spills in all between 2000 and 2013. The Fractivist website, operated by industry bugaboo Shane Davis, also took off as a place to find many industry documents about toxic releases. Davis himself took a star turn as the narrator of the documentary Dear Governor Hickenlooper, actually a collection of eleven polemical shorts by different filmmakers exploring different aspects of the fracking battle.

One development that didn't get a lot of play in the film: the mounting evidence that injection wells used for fracking wastewater disposal can produce earthquakes. In June the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered NGL Water Solutions to stop dumping water into a Weld County well, after two quakes in the Greeley area -- the first of any significance to strike the town in forty years -- occurred three weeks apart. (The larger of the two, a 3.4-magnitude temblor, was felt as far away as Golden and Boulder.) Although seismic testing indicated close to 500 small quakes in the area over a six-week period, COGCC lifted the ban in mid-July, after imposing new restrictions on the volume of water NGL is allowed to inject into the well on a daily basis.

That shakeup was nothing, though, compared to the rift that occurred between antifracking leaders and the self-proclaimed poster boy of fracking, Jared Polis. The congressman had helped bankroll the major statewide antifracking initiatives, but in August Polis struck a deal with Governor John Hickenlooper and others to pull the initiatives off the ballot, avoiding a costly, ad-saturated fall showdown. In exchange, Hickenlooper pledged to drop the state's lawsuit against the City of Longmont over its fracking ban and to form a commission to develop proposals intended to minimize conflict between the industry and local communities. But activists cried sellout, especially after they found out that the panel lacked any representation from the groups that had pushed the local fracking bans.

But while the ban-it-all crowd were licking their wounds by year's end, some progress was made in resolving drilling disputes that have dragged on for a decade or more. The most notable was the compromise reached on the Roan Plateau, a gas-rich area on the Western Slope that also happens to be rich in wildlife habitat and rare species. The deal announced by state and federal officials last month will cancel drilling leases at the top of the plateau while allowing energy development to continue at the base. Whether even stronger protection for Browns Canyon will be achieved by the push to designate the area a national monument is still up in the air.

Meanwhile, fractivists here are looking with some envy toward New York State -- which just imposed a statewide moratorium on fracking, and where a local town's ban on the practice sent billionaire Phil Anschutz packing last summer. The movement hasn't got that kind of muscle here, and faces a powerful governor on the side of compromise as "the Colorado way."

But a lot can happen in a year.

Have a tip? E-mail alan.prendergast@westword.com.

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