Anger over oil drilling heats up

The warring factions in the debate over the potential environmental and health risks of hydraulic fracturing have long been divided by deep suspicions and mistrust. Their battle, however, has in the past few months turned into one of the most openly hostile clashes in Northern Colorado in years.

In protests, letter-writing campaigns, social media postings, blogs, online ads and testimony before congressional subcommittees, those opposed to fracturing have unleashed a steady stream of vitriol aimed at the oil and gas industry.

The rhetoric has been hot, often befouling efforts at calmer discourse.

It is a stormy public-relations battle that promises to become even more heated as “fractivists” wage what some call “guerilla warfare.”

“It’s really about massive profit vs. people and the environment,” said Gary Wockner, director of Fort Collins environmental group Save the Poudre and one of the more recognized figures in the campaign against fracturing.

“I think it’s going to escalate,” he added.

Industry representatives and activist alike agree that the debate has reached a fever pitch thanks to the drilling boom in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. Fracturing involves pumping water, sand and chemicals in a drilled hole to release reserves of oil and gas trapped in shale formations. It is often combined with horizontal drilling, which can increase production far beyond a vertically drilled well.

Oil and gas industry representatives have watched the opposition closely — though they have often chosen to remain silent on the matter.

Others, like Colorado Oil & Gas Association President Tisha Conoly Schuller, have tried to calm what they describe as a fear campaign propagated by misinformation.

It’s not been easy.

As Conoly Schuller put it on COGA’s Twitter account last month: “Hell-no preempts the How-do-we-do-this-well? conversation.”

“I really get that people are scared,” she said in an interview. “(But) they may be scared because they don’t understand oil and gas.”

Schuller thought the debate had peaked several years ago. She was wrong: Today, anti-drilling activists are going door-to-door encouraging voters to sign a petition banning fracturing because they say the process will contaminate air and water.

“If people are against something and they’re sort of in a don’t-do-it mode, we’re not going to be talking about how do we do this well,” Conoly Schuller said. “It’s really easy to scare people; it takes a lot longer to inform them.”

Some people have made accusations “that really don’t have a lot of basis in reality,” said Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana, which drills natural gas wells in and around Erie.

“On the other hand, there are other folks who are being very constructive and they have legitimate concerns,” he said.

But some of the activist groups just don’t want drilling to occur at all, he said.

“That’s not a constructive nor legitimate point of view,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have activity, but we want to do it safely and in a way that addresses concerns.”

The company recently reached a deal with the town of Erie that requires it to operate under tighter restrictions than required by state law. As an example, Encana plans to use vapor-recovery units that limit pollution on new wells for at least the first year of a well’s operation, when the potential for emissions is highest.

That agreement highlights the company’s willingness to address concerns, Hock said.

That wasn’t enough for Erie Rising, which describes itself as a “mom-powered grassroots organization formed to protect our kids from dangers related to oil and gas operations.”

In one particularly crass Facebook post, Erie Rising called the accord “lame ass.”

“Garbage is what they are, pure and utter garbage and the town will pay the price for the decisions passed tonight,” the group said in its Facebook status update.

Another post called Erie Mayor Joe Wilson a “foolish man” and the town Board of Trustees “pathetic.”

Wilson did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Among its various activities, the group organized a protest in early September outside Encana’s operations off Highway 119 between Longmont and Firestone.

Wendy Leonard, a founding member of Erie Rising who moved from Erie to Louisville because she fears drilling, explained her frustration:

“We don’t feel like we’re being protected,” she said. “I’m a mom, I have four kids. I don’t feel like it’s safe.”

Environmentalists, citing state Oil and Gas Conservation reports, say oil and gas companies have reported hundreds of spills since 2000, and they contend some of those spills have contaminated surface and groundwater.

The oil and gas industry has denied that fracturing has contaminated water.

“If someone were to ask them if there’s been any impact to our water supply from the oil and gas operation as a whole, if they said, ‘No,’ then they’re absolutely lying,” Leonard said.

Earlier this year, one of Erie Rising’s members testified at a congressional field hearing that state officials haven’t been helpful in the fight against fracturing. “As a mother who wants nothing but to protect my children, I ask myself every day if we know enough” about fracturing, Jen Palazzolo told the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Cindy Christen, associate professor of journalism at CSU, said the activists have taken a “zero-sum game” approach in the fight, showing little willingness to give the oil companies any ground.

“What they’ve done well, I think, is take their cases to the front pages,” she said.

Moreover, they have been able to elicit coverage “that in many cases supports their position,” she said.

Christen, who has researched communications in controversies such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said most people sit in the middle of these kinds of debates and are neutral about the issues – at least at first.

Whether groups like Erie Rising are actually turning public opinion against the oil companies remains unknown.

Wockner, for one, believes the situation will intensify.

He said he believes opposition will become even more vocal if oil and gas companies begin drilling in the South Platte River Basin in Park County, where Denver Water gets much of its water.

“We are at a fever pitch, but it’s only going to get higher,” he said.

Wockner also contends that government and industry have become allies in a “war for fracking.”

“The governor’s on the wrong side of the issue,” he said. “He is throwing fuel on the fire by being so extraordinarily supportive of the oil and gas industry.”

A spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper did not respond to a request by the Business Report for an interview with the governor. The governor has heard an earful from anti-drilling activists.

In Longmont, a group of protesters crowded around Hickenlooper’s vehicle as the governor left a panel discussion last month on oil and gas, underscoring the fervor displayed by activists in their fight against fracturing.

While they picket the governor, fractivists do have their political allies, from county commissioners to members of Congress.

City and county officials sent a letter late in September to Hickenlooper criticizing him for the state’s decision to sue the city of Longmont for adopting oil and gas regulations stricter than state law.

“The governor says he wants to work with local communities, but then he takes us to court for trying to do the right thing for our citizens” Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs said at the time.

Michael Bellmont, owner of an insurance agency, is a member of the group, “Our health, our future, our Longmont,” which spearheaded an effort to petition for a fracturing ban.

Bellmont likened his fellow activists’ struggle to “guerilla warfare.”

Putting his business on hold, Bellmont has gone to battle to prevent what he sees as an industrial use similar to a sewage treatment plant coming near his neighborhood.

“It’s a threat to our health, our children’s health, our community’s health,” he said.

That, of course, is the sort of rhetoric that is so much in dispute.


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