The ongoing war over oil and gas drilling in Colorado is ongoing for a reason — it’s an existential fight for both sides of the line. Proposition 112, the controversial failed 2018 ballot measure, was just the beginning of that.
But what’s motivating the fight in the trenches? And what does it mean for the future and the present of the industry and of Greeley and Weld County?
Why keep fighting?
The reasons to keep battling on the industry side make sense. If regulations become too restrictive, it’ll become increasingly close to impossible to sustain business in the state. But, outgunned and outmanned, why keep fighting against it?
“There’s several studies that have come out (since 112’s failure) that have come to the conclusion that if all of the permits for oil and gas that have already been permitted are acted upon, and then we figuratively burn those fossil fuels, that the climate will warm beyond 2 degrees,” said Anne Lee Foster, the communications director for Colorado Rising, which lobbied hard for 112’s passage and continues to fight for stricter regulations since its failure. “That’s what the Paris Agreement said we’re going to try to avoid — catastrophic climate disaster scenarios. From a climate perspective, we’re definitely worse off.
“There have been more health studies that have come out showing impacts from oil and gas developments, most recently the study from the (Colorado Department of Health and Environment) modeling exposure to chemicals like benzene.”
Activists aren’t just mad at oil and gas for fun. They truly believe that drilling threatens the planet in the long-term, and public health in the near-term.
“I felt a lot of personal guilt (after 112 failed),” Foster said. “Because I understood the impacts that would come from this. As someone who understands intimately the impacts this industry has on communities, having read the studies and had so many personal conversations with people who’ve lived with the nightmare of oil and gas, I understood what kind of harm was going to come from 112 not passing.
“I understood we were up against a behemoth that out-resourced us enormously, but the guilt of what was going to happen to communities, to children, to the climate as a result of 112 not passing was a big and present thing to me throughout this past year.”
Some or all of those claims, of course, are disputed by those in the industry.
“My husband is a mechanic, and he never goes to the doctor,” said Blythe Driver, a recent city Greeley council candidate and the wife of an Oxy maintenance foreman, with a chuckle. “I have such a hard time with this.”
While setbacks are just one part of what the COGCC is addressing with its new rules — the final set of which are expected to be released in the spring — 112’s setback-expanding legacy lives on for a reason.
“Setbacks do address climate issues, because they do keep minerals in the ground and decrease operations overall,” Foster said. “So it does impact the climate.”
The echoes of 112 were heard again just this past month, in fact, when a CDPHE study prompted the COGCC to increase scrutiny on well permits within 2,000 feet of certain buildings, up from 1,500 previously.
Just this week readings near Greeley’s Bella Romero elementary schools — which, notoriously, are quite close to an active drilling site — showed elevated benzene in the atmosphere, prompting further concern and consideration from the CDPHE.
The fight isn’t close to being over.
“Next steps, we’re full-speed ahead on lawsuits with the COGCC asking for a stay on permitting until the rule-making is complete,” Foster said. “We’re also looking at ballot initiatives.”
The industry is armed for the conflict, too, as you’d expect, even though it’s already felt the wounds of battle.
“We’ve seen a decline in capital investment in the (Denver-Julesburg) Basin,” API Colorado executive director Lynn Granger said. “We’ve seen some layoffs in the state. We’re pretty fresh, it’s, what? Six months or so since 181 passed, and we have not gotten into what will be very technical, controversial rule-making quite yet. We’ve seen a decline in permitting as well from the COGCC.
“It’s tough to really look at, ‘OK, is the sky falling?’ No, but we’re starting to see negative impacts.”
Whatever happens, the impact extends beyond those with an immediate stake in the fight.
“I don’t think the sky’s falling, but I respect those that have concerns about health and safety, and I’ll certainly listen to anybody,” Greeley mayor John Gates said.
Gates and other municipal and county leaders know well the power oil and gas wields in Weld.
“It has been fantastic for economic health going back a long period of time with regard to the growth in Greeley,” Gates said. “We don’t know what impact there’d be if oil and gas were to go away completely, but obviously it’d have a huge impact.”
For example, the industry was largely responsible for a $50 million bump in Weld County’s property tax haul this year. That’s hard to walk away from, and area leaders have no intention of doing so.
Getting on in time of war
In the meantime, whatever’s coming next in the ongoing timeline of Proposition 112 and its legacy, there’s still the present.
Granger, a strategic communicator by background, believes there’s an important story that needs to be told that has nothing to do with the almighty dollar.
“When 112 failed, a lot of the messaging used by the industry was the economic impacts,” Granger said. “Of course, this industry is a cornerstone of Colorado’s economy, and it’d have a huge impact. But what we’ve been failing to do with this industry is communicating about everything we have been and continue to do around health, safety and the environment.”
Granger points out the people supporting SB181’s passage weren’t interested in money. They were interested in safety and in health.
“We haven’t been speaking the same language,” Granger said. “We consistently fall back on the economic impact piece of it, and very much want to focus on the other things that people are raising concerns about and doing our best to address those concerns.”
Driver, a mother and a homeowner in Greeley, has a perspective that followed this concept.
“We respect our homes and we’re not going to destroy our own homes and sacrifice our children for the sake of money,” Driver said. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re trying to make a living, raise families, plan for retirement, like anybody else.”
For the activists, the present and the future might as well be one in the same.
“A ballot initiative applies to the whole state,” Foster said. “Rule-making applies to the whole state. The rule-making sets a floor that Weld County cannot go beneath in terms of regulations.”
For those depending on the industry, the present is getting harder as the future looks more and more uncertain.
“I know some people are starting to give up,” Driver said. “Especially during the holidays, when people are losing jobs and contracts aren’t being filled. There’s families that have lost jobs and are looking for work. I’d say to them to hang on. I’d say not to give up on Colorado.”