The city of Boulder wants to block fracking in the Rocky Mountain state. The liberal enclave has banned the combination of directional drilling and cracking subterranean rock with high-pressure fluids known as fracking within its city limits. And local Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis wanted to enable other communities in Colorado to follow suit. He began collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would have vested authority in municipalities to enact their own fracking regulations, no matter what the state as a whole decides, to control the controversial practice that frees more oil and gas. For good measure, the Democrat also wanted to add another ballot measure that would have required a more than 600-meter buffer zone between drilling rigs and any residences.
The only obstacle standing between Polis and the ballot was his fellow Democrats. Current Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), a proponent of fracking and former oil geologist, believes that the anxiety around the method is not necessarily connected to the facts, yet notes that the abundance of natural gas released by fracking cannot be a fuel supply for the long-term, thanks to climate change. "Several communities, including mine, Fort Collins, have passed laws banning fracking and that has led to a clash between the state and the communities, which is not going to go away easily," says biophysicist Michael Fox of Colorado State University. "While there are certainly problems from fracking…, I believe these can be dealt with if proper regulations are enforced. … The view is just that fracking is bad—end of story."
Fracking has proved a divisive political issue in Colorado but it is hardly the only state struggling with the issue. New York has banned fracking pending an environmental and health review that does not seem to be forthcoming, a delay that has pro-fracking and economically depressed communities in certain parts of the state upset. North Dakota is attempting to lock in the economic gains from an oil boom unleashed by the technique yet restrain its ill effects, such as overstrained public resources and the threat to towns that boom then bust. North Carolina is puzzling out what regulations are appropriate to govern the practice in the state whereas Pennsylvania regulators have been revealed to be too lenient in their oversight. And the gubernatorial race in that state revolves in part around how to impose taxes on oil and gas companies to fund schools and other public goods—an idea John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio who is running for reelection, also supports.
The Cook Political Report notes that 2014 is likely to see the largest amount of advertising related to energy and environmental issues like fracking in the U.S.—ever. "Some fall in the 'drill, baby, drill' camp while others fall in the 'ban fracking' camp," explains David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "Colorado has played the role of petri dish for activists seeking bans, moratoriums and constitutional amendments around banning fracking, and by extension oil and gas drilling."
Science versus politics
The science is in: Drilling and fracking wells can be done safely—but often is not. The only questions that remains is whether the fracking fluids sent underground can leak up through natural or man-made fissures to infiltrate drinking water supplies, which has never been definitively proved or ruled out. Careless companies spill or dump some of the nine billion liters of contaminated water that flows back up fracked wells each day, allowing some of it to foul local waterways. Poorly encasing wells in steel and concrete can also allow fracking fluids to seep into drinking water supplies or natural gas to escape. Sending the undrinkable wastewater back down specially permitted disposal wells has been linked to earthquakes from Ohio to Oklahoma. And methane gas can slowly and steadily leak from wellheads and pipelines, trashing the atmosphere and, potentially, human health.
Colorado became the first state in the nation to attempt to regulate such methane emissions this year. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is now in charge of ensuring that any persistent gas leaks from natural gas infrastructure, particularly pipelines and storage tanks, must be fixed within two weeks of discovery as well as inspected on a regular basis. Recent research has found that benzene, hydrogen sulfide and other dangerous gases associated with natural gas drilling can be detected at higher levels in the air near oil and gas wells in Colorado and elsewhere. And, unlike the broader fight, this rule drew support from both environmentalists and industry as well as Democrats and Republicans.
The goal of the state's new regulation is to eliminate carelessness, much the same position espoused by current Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat facing an election this year. But that's the kind of oil and gas industry–friendly position attacked by fellow Democrats like Polis.
So in a bid to prevent this fault line from becoming a fracture in the general election—as well as staunch some of the inevitable flow of oil and gas money into the elections that would be used against Democrats—Hickenlooper and Polis struck a deal in August. Polis would withdraw his ballot measures and Hickenlooper would set up a task force to examine fracking issues in the state beyond air pollution and make recommendations for new legislation. That 18-member task force is deliberating now.
That does not sit well with fracking activists on either side of the fissure. And the deal has not prevented oil and gas money from flowing into the local elections—for county commissioner and city council, such as in Garfield County in western Colorado, which hosts tens of thousands of working wells—that may determine the fate of fracking in the state.
Still, the deal has put the fracking issue on the back burner in state-level elections at least, which have focused instead on issues such as abortion and even action on climate change. In a televised debate Udall forcefully defended the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan and suggested his GOP opponent, Cory Gardner, did not think climate change is even occurring. Gardner, however, admitted that human pollution contributes to a changing climate but said, "what I am not willing to do is to destroy the economy for policies to address that."
The natural gas freed by fracking is a key part of the Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution without negative economic impacts. Already, switching from burning coal to burning natural gas to generate electricity has cut U.S. pollution by 10 percent below 2005 levels while the economy continues to grow, a reduction in pollution that has shrunk in more recent years as gas has increased in price. At the same time the Obama administration may soon set national rules for methane leaks similar to Colorado's regulatory experiment. Fracking looks set to be an issue that exposes political fault lines for years to come.