Ballot measure on Colo. fracking ban in the works

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A statewide ban on the natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking could be on the ballot in Colorado in 2014.

Meanwhile, five Front Range cities are considering either a ban or a moratorium in this November’s election on the practice where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground under high pressure to break up sub-surface rock and unlock fuels.

Protect Our Colorado, a statewide anti-fracking group, has worked with cities and towns on local bans, and is eyeing a bigger goal.

“The official line is all options are on the table,” said Sam Schabacker, an organizer with Protect Our Colorado, which was the group behind the anti-fracking protest in Aspen in July connected to a visit by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“It’s clear citizens don’t have any other recourse” than a statewide initiative, considering that Hickenlooper’s administration will sue to prevent individual jurisdictions from enacting fracking bans, Schabacker said.

This November, an outright fracking ban could be on the ballot in Lafayette, while Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield voters are set to consider five-year fracking moratoriums, Schabacker said. Loveland voters will decide on a two-year moratorium.

Challenges to the practice of fracking helped set the context for a wide-ranging panel discussion on natural gas at the American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) summit on Friday at Aspen Meadows.

The morning panel, titled “Natural Gas — A Bridge to Where?”, was moderated by former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who mentioned the potential pending bans. The panel included former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, who also served on the state’s oil and gas oversight commission; Zane Kessler, director of the Thompson Divide Coalition, which is working to protect a wild landscape west of Carbondale from drilling; Scott Hall, whose Black Diamond Minerals drilling company holds controversial leases in the city of Fort Collins; Riggs Eckelberry of OriginOil Inc., a company that recycles water used in the fracking process; and leadership consultant David Trickett. 

Discussing the local bans and greater local control sought in some communities, Houpt said more restrictive land use regulations that recognize the “human factor” and keep industrial activity away from homes and schools is something the industry is going to have to get used to.

“Colorado has always been a strong local control state,” she said, adding that she thinks a statewide fracking ban would be too blunt of a tool. “I think the solution is to figure out where it is appropriate to drill.”


 Matthew Staver/The New York Times
A supporter of Longmont’s fracking ban holds a sign promoting the ban at the site of a planned oil well near the town, in this 2012 file photo. Voters passed the measure by a 59 percent margin. A statewide ban on fracking could be on the ballot in Colorado in 2014.

Much of the overall AREDAY discussion was focused on getting the world off coal-fired power, and natural gas — which burns much cleaner than coal — is often seen as a critical “bridge fuel” that is needed as society transitions to renewable energy.

Houpt, however, said that all emissions related to natural gas extraction and transportation must be figured into the equation. Methane gas that can leak from wells is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and if it’s not captured, some studies have said that the carbon benefit of natural gas may be eliminated.

Miller, of Black Diamond Minerals, said he acknowledges the risks of drilling, but said they are not all related to fracking. He said he welcomed a technically informed conversation about what the risks are, and how to best address them, and said he had little patience for the viewpoint that fracking should be banned entirely, certainly on a statewide level. Doing so would result in less natural gas and more coal, which would be worse for the environment, he said.

Eckelberry said he concedes that fracking isn’t going away, but a strong opposition is important to keep the resource companies honest. He noted that pressure from the environmental community has led oil and gas companies to invest in new renewable technologies.

Kessler emphasized that the Thompson Divide Coalition is taking a “moderate” and “market-based” approach in the effort to retire gas leases in the area between the Sunlight ski area and McClure Pass. The coalition, which includes groups not traditionally associated with environmental and conservation movements, has mostly stayed out of the fracking debate, Kessler said.

It’s hard to negotiate with and demonize drilling companies at the same time, he said.

Kessler said any discussion of a statewide fracking ban would be “a little premature,” and said the practice has helped revitalize some economically depressed communities. But it’s not appropriate in a place like Thompson Divide that already has a robust economy that relies on the land, he said.

After the panel, Ritter said that if a statewide fracking ban makes it onto the ballot in Colorado, it would likely be a showdown of epic proportions. Vermont has banned fracking, Ritter said, but it doesn’t have near the energy resources of Colorado. The industry would fight hard to defeat the measure here, Ritter predicted.

In 2008, Ritter helped carry a statewide initiative that would have rescinded a tax credit oil and gas companies enjoy in Colorado, funneling the extra revenue to schools. After being heavily outspent, proponents of the measure, known as Amendment 58, lost 42 percent to 58 percent.

However, when given the chance to ban fracking in Longmont in 2012, voters passed the measure by a 59 percent margin.


curtis@aspendailynews.com