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Why Citizens in Colorado Can’t Keep the Oil Industry Out of Their Backyards

Fracking in some neighborhoods means residents could expect heavy industrial activity out their back door for up to three or four months a year, 24/7, over half a decade.

Photo Credit: Tom Grundy/



Do you want to know how cold it can get in Antarctica in midwinter?  Go to a city council meeting in Greeley, Colorado, any time regulation of the oil and gas industry is on the agenda.  You’ll get an idea.  Last week, the room temperature felt near absolute zero from the iciness of the council’s reaction to citizen petitions to rein in industry designs on their neighborhood, a place called Fox Run.

What was up for debate was a proposal to approve permits for 16 horizontally fracked oil wells on a small parcel of undeveloped land, itself about 16 acres within the city.  The 16 wells would be only 350 feet from the back door of some residences.  These wells, according to the oil company, would be fracked four at a time, meaning the citizens of these neighborhoods could expect heavy industrial activity out their back door for up to three or four months a year, 24/7, over half a decade, perhaps.  We’re talking literally tens of thousands of truck trips to deliver water, chemicals, steel pipe and a variety of heavy industrial machinery via a single point of ingress.

Envision, if you will, the Saturday afternoon barbeque, with the excited voices of children at play competing with the drone and earth rattle of drilling next door as unknown quantities of who-knows-what are spewed onto the festivities.  This scene could be played out over and over again as money is made for the few and public health and social wellbeing are sacrificed by the many.  That was the argument most often made by the homeowners. 

Add to this that some local businesses would actually be only 200 feet from the wells.  It happens that the man who owns the 16 acres for the drilling site also owns the street-front buildings in which these businesses are housed.  They had all voluntarily agreed to the reduced setback, and no one suspected collusion in these robust economic times.  As the owner said--employing small town, Daddy Warbucks logic--these people couldn’t tell him what to do with his land.  That would be a takings, and he would have to be compensated, royally.  In his mind, his individual rights were superior to the public’s. 

His understanding is almost certainly wrong, for the U.S.  Supreme Court has affirmed over and over again that the protection of the public’s health and well-being is superior to property rights, but no use to talk to this scion of private-property-rights-uber-alles.  The only thing keeping the takings assertion alive for the oil boys and rent-seeking land owners is that government refuses to look at the health implications of fracking systematically, even though a host of scientific and public policy leaders at all levels of government and academia are asking for them. The EPA is studying the impacts on water.  A draft of this study is to be released in 2014, but the agency has scrubbed any analysis of air impacts as a result of oil industry pressure. 

In the end, despite roughly 45 people speaking in opposition to the permit, and only about 7 in favor--four of them owners of the permits and the property involved--in an audience of about 150 people, the city council voted 7-0 in favor of the oil company and private enrichment over repeated calls for caution and deferral until the health impacts of fracking are better understood.  

Of the opposition, many are homeowners in Fox Run, some are tearfully concerned about their children, all are concerned about the air impacts.  A doctor, head of the pulmonary unit at the Greeley Hospital, tried to appeal to the council’s better angels.  Another woman explained that Fox Run is home to two city-chartered apartments for the disabled, 40 units in all.  These units were built with $4 million in public money from HUD.  Ranging in age from 20 to 70, many of these citizens are wheel chair bound, and the majority use oxygen, in the newer unit all but one.  The impacts on them might prove frightful she reasoned.  

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