Frustrated in Frack City USA

Frack site in Weld County

A natural gas well in Greeley, CO

In a national economy that added 10 million jobs since it rose out of the pit of the Great Recession, one part of Colorado has been racing far ahead of any other U.S. region: Weld County. Employment growth in the county quadrupled the national average. As is typically the case though, growth like that comes with a cost.

Natural resource and mining — namely the large upsurge in drilling for oil and gas — are driving Weld County’s growth, according to the Labor Department. Drilling companies have identified 20,000 potential drilling sites in northern Colorado, so the boom isn’t stopping anytime soon. Even though wells can reach gas or oil pockets up to 2 miles away, they need to go where the gas is. When the gas field is beneath a city, then wells are built near people. I met people in Greeley who feel a well doesn’t make the best neighbor and they don’t like what the oil and gas boom is doing to their community.

Saturday, 11 October, was Global Frackdown Day. Across 33 U.S. states and 34 countries, 316 groups put on events to show their opposition to fracking. Here in northern Colorado, Food & Water Watch organized a visit to three drill sites in Greeley, CO, aka Frack City USA, the urban center of Weld County. I caught up with the group in a Sprouts grocery store parking lot in Greeley.

Anti-fracking fliers handed out by the organizers of the event included material from the Internet stating that a person living near a drilling site is exposed in half an hour to the amount of pollution others normally experience in a day and relatives ask Greeley residents, “How the hell do you live here?” We also received maps locating the hundreds of wells within the city and a DVD with a 47-minute video titled “What You Need to Know about Natural Gas Production” by Theo Colborn, founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. All in all, it was a well-organized collection of research and emotional arguments that could sway someone who was undecided about fracking.

The 30 or so people visiting from Denver needed no convincing however. Food & Water Watch’s position on fracking is clearly visible on their website, which promotes their new report, “The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking.” The Denver area residents came up for the day to learn more about fracking but also what they could do to fight it. Despite the reason behind the day’s events, this was more class field trip than protest. No one was carrying anti-fracking banners or chanting, “Down with fracking!”

Frack site near Aims Community College

Drill site with Aims CC in the background

While at the first well site, which is on the campus of Aims Community College, I talked with Therese, a Greeley resident, 22-year teacher, and mother. She readily admitted there is too much money in fracking for it to go away anytime soon. She instead focused on two points. Her first was that green completion technology (capturing the methane and organic compounds normally burned off or released into the air) to make drilling operations cleaner is already in use; it just needs to be adopted industry wide. (Earlier in 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to restrict methane emissions.) Secondly, air pollution from oil and gas operations is mobile and should be a concern for all Coloradans. “Everyone wants to protect their health; it’s non-partisan,” Therese said.

Our second stop was a drill site just a few hundred feet from Northridge High School’s track and football field, where a game was being played, and an apartment complex. The track doesn’t qualify for Colorado’s 1000′ setback requirement since it isn’t an occupied building. The apartments were built after the wells were drilled, so we have to blame the developer for putting them so close.

Tour stop at second frack site

From L to R: Robert (holding map), Rachel and Therese

Robert Winkler, Executive Director of anti-fracking group Weld Air and Water, said his group is trying to get a health impact assessment done by the state. Rachel, a student at the Colorado School of Mines and Therese’s daughter, emphasized the need for state regulations to clean up existing wells like this one. Although Colorado has some of the strictest oil and gas regulations in the U.S., these Greeley citizens feel the state and their city are still not doing enough. Robert and Therese both expressed their frustration multiple times about the two governments favoring oil and gas over the people.

While there, I had my only encounter of the day with someone from the energy  industry. It was when I stepped off the Poudre River Trail to get past a tree so I could get a panoramic shot of the drill site and the track (operator error kept me from getting the shot). A man in a white pickup farther down the trail threatened to have me arrested for trespassing. I was only a few feet off the trail and there were no signs indicating the property line of the oil and gas company, so I considered it a hollow threat and continued with my attempts at photography.

High school football field near frack site

Kids playing football at adjacent Northridge High School

Josh Fox, director of “Gasland,” would have loved the scene. A group of concerned citizens calmly discussing the hazards of fracking, an ongoing gas operation about a football-field length from kids playing football, and a worker of some sort  threatening legal action. Fractivists like Josh could have had a field day with that.

I went on the trip with the cold perspective of a scientist, looking to learn more about fracking operations. I came away with a much better appreciation how fracking affects people. Those from Greeley who led this tour –Therese, Rachel, and Robert– are deeply concerned for their community, for their health, for their children. The debate about our energy future isn’t going to end anytime soon, but we shouldn’t forget in the meantime that the issues we are talking about are affecting people today.

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