First Colorado City Votes To Ban Natural Gas Fracking

Despite over half a million dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry in Longmont, Colorado, residents voted Tuesday to make the city the first to ban hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the state. The city of 87,000, nestled at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, voted 59 to 41 to ban the controversial method of extracting shale oil and gas, as well as to ban the storage of the toxin-laden wastewater in the city limits.

Fracking involves pumping large quantities of fresh water, coupled with chemicals and sand, into shale formations to crack the rock and extract the fossil fuels. Studies have revealed that fracking fluids contain a host of toxic substances, including known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds. Fracking has the documented potential to contaminate drinking water sources, foul air and land, as well as spoiling millions of gallons of fresh water as part of the drilling process that must then be disposed.

City Resists Fracking, Industry Fights Back With Over Half a Million

The story of Longmont’s struggle with the fossil fuel industry began in 2011 when plans to drill a well in a part of town near a middle school, reservoir, and residential area raised concern. A recent University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health study showed that living within a half mile of fracking sites exposes residents to pollutants like trimethylbenzenes, aliphatic hydrocarbons, and xylenes at five times above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Hazard Index. That, plus other concerns like water contamination, led Longmont residents to voice opposition. In response, the city commenced a period of public input and scientific testing, followed by the crafting of an operators agreement to regulate drilling operations in the city. This agreement included provisions such as a requirement that drill sites be 750 feet away from any structures, that wells be set away from water sources, and that companies develop a plan for water testing with the city which would go beyond the state's standards. 

A few days after the City Council adopted the new set of rules, some 100 volunteers from Longmont turned in over 8,200 signatures to put a ballot question in November's election calling for a charter amendment that would ban fracking in the city. 

In the meantime, Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper, a former geologist with Buckhorn Petroleum, decided to sue the city on July 30th to overturn the operators agreement. The state objected to eight aspects of the regulations. In response to the ongoing lawsuit, a letter with 6,000 signatures, including 82 city, county and town officials, as well as mayors, city council members, county commissioner, and public trustees, was delivered to the governor in September asking him to withdraw the lawsuit and expressed "surprise and disappointment" at the State's decision to spend tax dollars on a case against one of its own communities working to protect public health and the environment. The governor and his lieutenant governor received $76,441 from the oil and gas industry during his 2010 campaign.

The fossil fuel industry responded to the effort to ban fracking in Longmont with full force. The small city saw over $500,000 spent by outside groups funneled through affiliated groups "Longmont Taxpayers for Common Sense" and “Main Street Longmont,” registered as "issue committees" under Colorado's campaign finance laws, in opposition to the measure. The committees disclose their donors. The city was blanketed with glossy mailers, the airwaves flooded with doomsday messages on the alleged price of not drilling, and the newspapers sported full page ads calling on residents to turn down the initiative. Some of the big spenders included the American Petroleum Institute, Encana, American Natural Gas Alliance, and Halliburton. The ads threatened that if a ban was passed, the city would need to pay off mineral rights owners for the missing revenue. According to Sam Schabacker of Food and Water Watch, this claim was without basis. 

Richard Evans is the registered agent for “Main Street Longmont.” Evans works for Reiter & Associates, a Denver-based political consulting firm. The firm is headed by Rick Reiter, who has been involved in several successful ballot campaigns in the past, including defeating an effort to increase severance taxes assessed to oil and gas money. The group recruited seven of the city’s former Longmont mayors, all Republicans, as the public faced the push against the charter amendment.

Residents Worry About Hidden Costs of Fracking

The residents, in response, organized a group called “Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont," also an issue committeee which received $28,600 in contributions and discloses its donors. They held educational forums and talked with their neighbors. Residents wrote op-eds in the local news outlets. Tim Schabacker, for instance, who has worked for the shale gas industry for 35 years, wrote that he is “dead set against” fracking in Longmont. 

“The arguments by proponents about the economic benefits of fracking are misleading,” he wrote. “The immediate economic benefits of drilling overlook the hidden costs borne by the community not only in terms of the general degradation of residents' health and quiet enjoyment of their environment, but also the negative impact of declining real estate values.”

City Hopes to Set Example, Governor Plans to Sue -- Again

The fossil fuel industry’s big spending did not drown out the concerns of the residents about their health and the local environment. While the state of Colorado is being heavily exploited by the fracking industry, community organizers hope that the example set by Longmont will serve as a road map for other communities facing pressure from the fossil fuel industry. 

“We have shown that Big Oil money does not always win and that our constitutionally guaranteed right to health, safety, and protection of property is not for sale. We proved that ordinary citizens with very little money but a lot of determination, intelligence, passion and boot leather can prevail,” Michael Bellmont, a member of Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont said. 

In September, the governor threatened a second lawsuit against the city if the ban passed.


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