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David V. Goliath: Colorado Towns Take On Gas Giants To Rein In Fracking

By Tom Kenworthy

"David V. Goliath: Colorado Towns Take On Gas Giants To Rein In Fracking"

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Merrily Mazza, right, asks Lafayette, Colorado voter Kat Goldberg to support a ballot question that would ban drilling for oil and gas in the community.

Merrily Mazza, right, asks Lafayette, Colorado voter Kat Goldberg to support a ballot question that would ban drilling for oil and gas in the community.

CREDIT: Tom Kenworthy

LAFAYETTE, COLORADO — On a recent Saturday, buoyed by picture-perfect autumn weather, Merrily Mazza was knocking on doors in her adopted community on Colorado’s booming Front Range north of Denver. The Chicago transplant and retired McGraw-Hill executive is running for city council in next week’s city election and she’s looking for votes.

But her own campaign was not her first priority that day. Her primary assignment was chasing down potential supporters of a ballot measure that would establish a “Community Bill of Rights” in Lafayette — and ban oil and gas drilling within city limits.

Mazza and volunteers like her in Lafayette and three other Colorado cities that will next week determine the fate of ballot initiatives to block oil and gas drilling are at the forefront of what is fast becoming an epic battle. At issue is whether communities have the authority to regulate drilling and fracking within their borders or whether that power rests solely with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

co frack ban-01At one of Mazza’s first stops, on South Carr Avenue, Kat Goldberg answered the doorbell. Hearing Mazza’s pitch against the oil and gas extraction technique known as fracking, Goldberg said: “I’m not keen on it. I have three kids and I’d like the environment to be sustainable for my kids and their kids. I don’t think fracking is a good thing to be doing.”

The recent unprecedented flooding in Colorado, which resulted in oil and gas spills totaling more than 40,000 gallons, has intensified concerns among residents and activists about the impact of oil and gas drilling and the state’s ability to safely regulate it.

Less than a year after the Colorado oil and gas industry’s trade association sued the city of Longmont over a similar ban on fracking, and only a few months after the state government run by Gov. John Hickenlooper joined the association in suing that city, activists in four communities in Colorado are nonetheless pressing ahead with ballot initiatives that would ban or impose moratoria on drilling and fracking.

The looming November showdown in those communities reflects mounting concern over a boom in oil and gas development closing in on suburbs and cities along Colorado’s Front Range, the heavily populated region that abuts the foothills of the Rockies stretching from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. In Weld County, to the east of the four communities that will vote on anti-fracking ballot measures, there are now more than 20,000 oil and gas wells, about 40 percent of the state total.

“This is a movement of Front Range towns saying ‘No,’” said Mandi Papich, who is in charge of rounding up volunteers to push for the Lafayette ballot question organized by a group called East Boulder County United.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association is rising up to meet them. As of mid-October, the organization had put more than $600,000 into the ballot fights: $256,134 in Fort Collins, $171,238 in Broomfield, $110,337 in Boulder and $66,974 in Lafayette.

co frack ban-02The ballot measures in Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield would keep fracking and drilling outside their city limits for five years. Lafayette activists are taking a more comprehensive approach, one modeled on communities in Pennsylvania, where rapid and widespread natural gas development in the Marcellus shale formation has spurred a community bill of rights movement.

The Lafayette ballot measure would amend the city charter with a list of rights that includes the rights of self government, clean water and air, freedom from “chemical trespass,” “peaceful enjoyment of home,” and a “sustainable energy future.” The charter amendment would also make it unlawful for any corporation or person to engage in oil and gas extraction within city limits.

Mazza says the bill of rights approach to fighting oil and gas development is a stronger approach than imposing a moratorium, a tool she describes as “pussyfooting around.”

“Any community with a moratorium of more than a few months is going to get sued anyway,” Mazza said. “Communities should have the right to decide what goes on in their communities. You have to start challenging this stuff.”

Lafayette’s city council adopted a three-year moratorium this summer, but was warned in a nine page letter from a law firm that represents some of the state’s largest oil and gas operators that such a measure is impermissible because the state, not individual cities and towns, is empowered to regulate oil and gas activities.

co frack ban-03Mazza concedes that Lafayette does not currently have much of an oil and gas problem, with just 14 producing wells that date to the 1990s and no pending proposals by the industry to drill more. But she says, “Eventually it will come here. What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for someone to show up?”

The issue of who has the authority to regulate oil and gas activity in the Colorado communities in question may ultimately be decided in the state supreme court, but until then the issue isn’t going away. “Eventually it will be a state movement,” said Papich. “People are rising up.”

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