Beneath the Surface

The United States holds enough oil and gas to power the country for hundreds of years, and Colorado is at the center of the search for energy resources. Using a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—and new drilling techniques, oil and gas companies are able to extract these previously inaccessible fossil fuels. These technologies may be the biggest step yet toward securing our energy independence. But at what cost?

December 2012

Jurisdiction Matters

Longmont steps up in the power struggle between local and state governments: Who should regulate fracking?

Imagine someone coming into your backyard and building a factory in full view of your living room. They tell you the location is prime for manufacturing. But no one cares that you know your neighborhood best. There’s nothing you can do about it. The factory starts humming. Workers traipse through your yard every day. Smog wafts up over your rooftop.

It’s not a far-fetched scenario for those who live in mineral-rich zones. Currently, the state makes the oil and gas rules for Colorado. Municipalities, much to the frustration of some, don’t have the final say on the technical aspects of drilling within their city limits. 

And then, there’s Longmont. At press time, the city of Longmont and the state of Colorado were locked in a legal skirmish. The state sued the city in July after Longmont passed its own drilling regulations in an attempt to trump the COGCC’s existing rules. “To be clear at the outset,” wrote Governor John Hickenlooper in a September 26 letter to Longmont city officials, “suing Longmont was a last—and not a first—resort for our administration. This decision was only made after attempts to resolve the state’s concerns were unsuccessful.” 

The state’s beef? A “patchwork” of local, inexperienced town governments managing different sets of regulations is unwieldy and inefficient compared to an agency with more than 70 years of oil and gas experience and already-existing rules that are “widely regarded as among the most protective in the nation,” Hickenlooper wrote. The city of Longmont filed to dismiss the lawsuit in September, to no avail. The case has become a textbook example of the regulatory debate sparked by hydraulic fracturing.

Litigation aside, the residents of Longmont last month voted yes on Question 300, a ballot initiative making Longmont the first city in Colorado to ban fracking and related waste disposal within city limits. The charter amendment was petitioned onto the ballot by advocacy group Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which secured 8,200 signatures. Some critics say the amendment will just invite further legal action.


Take Two

Doing it different in the East.  

New York has taken a drastically different approach to hydraulic fracturing than most states, Colorado included. In 2008, New York officials temporarily banned fracking in the Marcellus shale—a formation that, by some estimates, contains enough natural gas to meet the country’s demand for six years. At the same time, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation started researching the impact fracking has on the environment. The governor has said he intends to continue the temporary ban until the study is complete. In the meantime, more than 30 towns in New York have banned fracking permanently, and at least another 80 have enacted temporary moratoriums in line with the state’s decision.


On The Big Screen

Three films tell three very different fracking stories. 

• Gasland  

If you haven’t seen the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, chances are you have heard of the film’s money shot, in which a Colorado man sets fire to the water running out of his kitchen faucet. The scene—and the implication that fracking caused the flammable tap water—became so controversial that the COGCC issued a detailed, four-page Gasland correction document. The agency contends that the gas in the tap water is naturally occurring “biogenic” methane—not the “thermogenic” methane associated with oil and gas development. Film director Josh Fox responded with the argument that fracking could have created a pathway for “biogenic” methane to seep into the aquifer. Who’s right? Who knows? gaslandthemovie.com

• FrackNation 

FrackNation is a response to Gasland that aims to “tell the truth about fracking for natural gas in the United States and globally.” The film challenges fractivist rhetoric with testimonies from families and citizens whose survival depends on hydraulic fracturing—e.g., farmers whose livelihoods hinge on leasing their land to oil and gas companies. The filmmakers have also produced documentaries that attack Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and aim to debunk the environmentalist movement. FrackNation is currently in production. fracknation.com

• Promised Land         

Matt Damon is stirring up controversy—and talk of an Oscar—with his latest film, a drama that pits a natural gas company salesman against a small rural town struggling with economic collapse. The twist: The film, which reportedly carries an anti-fracking message aligned with Damon’s and co-star John Krasinski’s views, is financially backed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates—an OPEC member and the world’s third-largest oil exporter. Promised Land premieres this month so it can slide into the 2013 Academy Awards pool; look for the general release in January.