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Power Struggle: 10 Reasons for Our Energy Problems

The Centennial State has become ground zero for the battle over fossil-fuel extraction. Here's why.

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You might not guess it, given all of the squabbling surrounding energy production in Colorado, but we know this to be true: The Centennial State has more than enough natural resources to satisfy the energy needs of everyone in the state—and a pretty sizable chunk of the rest of the country, too.

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The thing is that we are, both literally and figuratively, stuck between a rock and a hard place. With so many competing interests battling over every square inch of Centennial State territory, we’ve created a situation that makes congressional gridlock look like a free-flowing exchange of enlightened ideas. Yes, we could drill for oil and extract that natural gas…if we didn’t mind having wells in our backyards. We could mine our still-plentiful coal…if it weren’t so damn dirty. We could harness Colorado’s infinite sun and wind…if the land use and processing costs weren’t prohibitive. We could find compromises between protecting Mother Nature and padding the economy…if the tree huggers and drill-baby-drillers would cede just an inch or two. We could probably even establish a coherent, long-term energy strategy…if our politicians could agree on anything other than their shared desire to remain in office.

Dealing with all these ifs is what Colorado must do to keep the power flowing in the face of population increases—we’re projected to add about 750,000 people by 2020 and another two million by 2040—that will only make our energy consumption rise. That shouldn’t be a problem—in theory. After all, according to the most recent statistics, Colorado produces the seventh-largest slice of energy in the United States but only consumes the 33rd most per capita. We’re rolling in fuel, but the fight to find a cleaner, more comprehensive solution to our growing energy needs seems, right now, like an irrational pipe dream. So: Why can’t we find any common ground?


Because the Fifty-Niners set us up for an eternity of contradictions.

These intrepid treasure-seekers descended upon Colorado after gold was discovered in 1858 near what is now Confluence Park. They were the original inhabitants of area mining camps that would eventually become the cities of Denver and Boulder, and once they’d dug up enough lucrative minerals to settle here, they looked up and realized how much everything above the ground had to offer. Hunting and fishing, camping under the stars, and trekking through the glorious mountains became integral parts of the Colorado lifestyle (it would be a few more generations, of course, before someone figured out how fun it was to traverse the snowy slopes with wooden sticks strapped to his feet). And thus, the enduring tension between reveling in our spectacular wilderness and trying to extract all the profitable goodies it contains was born.

Because oil companies have been wasting their time (and ours) for more than 30 years.

In the 1970s and early ’80s, oil and gas companies began pouring millions of dollars into oil shale development on Colorado’s Western Slope. The operations meant jobs and paychecks—and, as it turns out, false hope. The traditional oil shale extraction process, called an “ex situ” operation, mines energy-rich rocks and then heats them on the surface to produce a petroleumlike fluid, which can be processed into usable fuel. (A newer, experimental process, called “in situ,” converts the rock while it’s still underground and then slurps up the fluid.) Although Colorado’s Piceance Basin holds an estimated 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, companies such as Shell and Chevron have struggled to find commercially viable (and environmentally responsible) ways to convert the rock to fuel. Their failures—the two behemoths have abandoned these oil shale operations in the past two years—as well as locally available sources of crude oil have contributed to this iteration of our region’s familiar boom-and-bust cycle. “Oil shale extraction works in the lab with small test batches, but it’s not economical on a large scale,” says David Abelson, a Boulder-based independent environmental consultant. “Some people say it’s a boom-and-bust cycle, but it’s more like hype, then bust.” Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, goes even further, saying, “Oil shale is yesterday’s idea. It’s not where our kids’ kids will be getting their energy, so we shouldn’t be investing in it.” That won’t dissuade some oil and gas companies from trying to prove it works: In 2012, ExxonMobil completed Colorado-based field research on technologies and methods to convert oil shale underground into usable oil and gas; the company continues that research in labs in Houston. Such efforts are likely to continue as long as our exploration policies allow it—whether or not they pay off in the long run.

Because there is now such a thing as a fracktivist.

Much like “tea partier,” the term “fracktivist” usually conjures images of outspoken wackos who seem to enjoy the fight just a little too much. But the coining of the term—often attributed to Shane Davis, a biologist who helped start the first grassroots anti-fracking group in Colorado and now runs fractivist.org—was incited by understandable concerns about health issues related to fracking. Although fracking and horizontal drilling techniques have been used in Colorado for a good 60 years, the rigs have primarily—and historically—been located in less populated areas of the state. Around 2010, however, large deposits of previously untapped oil along the densely populated Front Range finally became obtainable through new drilling technologies. Combining those subsurface energy jackpots (and the oil executives who are seeing dollar signs) with suburban communities filled with hypervigilant soccer moms is a recipe for civil unrest. After all, from their viewpoints, fracktivists see this: wells near their children’s schools; a rise in unexplained rashes and respiratory conditions; contaminated drinking water; and potential carcinogens entering their neighborhoods. Because of those still-unclear risks—and other inconveniences associated with fracking like noisy trucks, industrial banging and clanging, and blinding lights—cities such as Lafayette,
Longmont, and Fort Collins have voted to ban fracking operations. (Some of those bans have since been overturned or are mired in lawsuits.)

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Because our politicians are even more ludicrous than we’ve come to expect.

After the state sued Longmont in 2013 to overturn its voter-approved fracking ban, the can of worms couldn’t be resealed. U.S. Representative Jared Polis, who represents parts of Longmont, joined the fracktivist forces, citing local-control issues as his motivation; his opponents love to note that Polis only got involved after he discovered a fracking project across the street from his Weld County weekend home. Despite a deal for increasing well setbacks that already had been approved by the oil and gas industry and Governor John Hickenlooper’s administration, the wealthy Democratic congressman helped fund anti-industry ballot initiatives that would have, most agree, crippled oil and gas investment in the state. After months of political infighting, public name-calling, and apocalyptic pronouncements from both sides, Polis and Hick—who claims he quaffed fracking fluid in 2013 to demonstrate its harmlessness—reached a compromise that canceled the initiatives and established a statewide task force to formulate fracking policy recommendations.

No matter what the task force comes up with, there’s no getting around the fact that some Colorado towns earn a large majority of their tax revenues from oil and gas development. And, says Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), those communities will likely continue to support the industry. But the vehement resistance in other towns means a statewide compromise granting more local-control options will be the task force’s likely conclusion. And, in a not-surprising move, Polis is already signaling that he’ll re-sponsor the statewide ballot initiatives in 2015 or ’16 if his constituency doesn’t like what the task force comes up with, so this issue is likely to dominate our pols and polls—and maybe our courts—for at least a few more years.

Because the oil and gas industry doesn’t realize its biggest challenges are on the surface—not down in the hole.

Although the fracking task force should produce its initial proposals sometime in 2015, there’s one proposition the task force likely won’t make but should: telling oil and gas executives to hire a good PR agency. The oil and gas industry has long been clueless about community relations and continues to let the environmentalists take them behind the proverbial woodshed in the PR battle. Noise, light pollution, industrial waste, possible earthquakes(!), and health problems that fracking may create are easy topics around which the enviro set can rally a town, and so far, the industry side has done little of the face-to-face goodwill work that could sway public sentiment. They might erect a billboard or run commercials on TV and radio, but these approaches lack the personal touch a more thoughtful community relations strategy would have. As Patty Limerick of the Center of the American West notes, “We can do all the scientific measurements we want, but it may require a very different social policy to address the hardwired quality of parents caring about the health and safety of their children.” Until oil and gas realizes its need to be seen as a partner of affected towns rather than a profit-hungry bully, these tensions will remain.

Because the group charged with overseeing oil and gas may or may not be doing its job.

The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency that supervises the industry, is something of a puzzle. The nine-member commission has to walk a political tightrope because its mission is to simultaneously protect the environment and the public from health and safety threats while also developing the industry as an economic driver for the state. In 2013, intense lobbying efforts helped strip a provision from a House bill that would have prohibited anyone who currently works for oil and gas producers from serving on the committee. A watered-down version of the bill passed, and now three of the nine COGCC members have oil and gas backgrounds (down from five of seven in 2006). However, anecdotal reports have recently emerged that question whether the COGCC is adequately responding to complaints and concerns from citizens about property damage, water quality, and noise pollution caused by drilling. To many environmentalists, the COGCC is letting big oil and gas off easy when its work creates spills—a shocking two per day in Colorado through the first half of 2014—or contaminates groundwater.

Because Cliven Bundy is an American hero (to some people, at least).

The folks who believe Nevada’s renegade rancher is a noble resister of the Big Bad Feds are fans of an esoteric but emerging idea that we, the people, are entitled to “take back” our federal lands and do with them what we wish. (This would mean letting states manage certain lands—like BLM areas—within their borders; the fears being states may not manage them well and that some could auction the tracts off to oil and gas developers.) While detractors say this crusade is firmly fringy, Colorado lawmakers such as Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, have pushed legislation aimed at doing exactly that.

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The problem is, the notion itself is based on a false premise. Neither the states nor their residents have ever owned these lands; they’ve long been owned by the U.S. government, which either purchased them from other countries, took them from Native Americans, or won them in wars. The good news is, this issue doesn’t divide along liberal-conservative lines because the primary objectors to such plans are hunters, anglers, and other outdoorsme—people Bundy et al. might think would be in their court but clearly aren’t.

Because the greater sage-grouse has become the darling of environmentalists.

Unless you spend a lot of time on the Western Slope, you’re probably thinking, What the hell is a sage-grouse? This small bird, native to the West and Canada, has become an environmental celebrity even though it’s not endangered. (It’s listed as “near threatened” on the World Wildlife Fund’s endangered species list, the sixth most severe designation, which means it’s likely to become endangered in the near future.) Oil and gas development is threatening to threaten the bird’s sagebrush habitat, which has triggered debates about our land-use priorities. Any efforts to clear these areas—located mostly in northwestern Colorado—for development or to erect structures like towers could imperil the birds’ habitat. Of course, if you’re a hunter with a valid license, you’re still free to bag two birds a day in season.

Because going the renewable route could make us even more beholden to China.

We know fossil fuel production is finite and pocked with health and geopolitical concerns. That’s why clean-energy advocates say the alternatives should be the endlessly renewable wind and sun. If billionaires like Phil Anschutz are sinking cash into Rocky Mountain wind farms—albeit ones that carry most of their power to California—shouldn’t that be a ringing endorsement?

Maybe. Despite President Barack Obama’s once-feverish attempts to prop up wind and solar power via subsidies and production targets, both sectors have barely made a dent in overall U.S. energy consumption or creation so far. They’re also major land hogs, and expensive ones to boot, because while we have plenty of wind and sun, transforming these resources into electricity requires the same “rare earth elements,” such as cadmium and tellurium, that are found in cellphones. Who owns about 40 percent of the reserves of these materials and satisfies the majority of global demand? Good ol’ China, which means ramping up our renewable energy sources could end up supplicating us to our biggest economic rival. “The wind blows for free,” says Amy Oliver Cooke, director of the Energy Policy Center for the Independence Institute, “but that idea fails to take into account how expensive it is to turn it into electricity, and it won’t make us energy independent anyway.” Renewable energy advocates acknowledge the cost issues, but they’d still like to see more programs that incentivize development.

Because the powers that be won’t go nuclear.

It may shock you to realize that in 2013, almost 20 percent of U.S. power came from nuclear sources, despite the fact the country hasn’t built a new nuclear power facility in more than 30 years. (Colorado’s one and only plant was decommissioned in 1992.) But according to Cooke, “If carbon emissions are your issue, you should be a champion of nuclear.” Statistically speaking, nuclear is safer for the environment and minimizes land-use issues. But when rare accidents do happen—like in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011—they grab international headlines and gin up the “no nukes” sentiment that helped derail the industry here in the ’70s and ’80s. We all know how much politicians love bad press, so for now, getting any mainstream pol to advocate for the nuclear option is a long shot.

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12/1/14 Correction: In the original version of this story, we misspelled Shane Davis’ website; the correct URL is fractivist.org. We regret the error.

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