Former Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the University of Colorado recently to talk about oil and gas drilling on federal public lands. Not surprisingly, he didn’t pull any punches.
Babbitt criticized the agency he oversaw during the Clinton years, the Bureau of Land Management, for its handling of drilling on 250 million acres of land and 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, all of which it manages for American taxpayers. Agency decisions about drilling are “dictated by the oil and gas industry,” he said bluntly. Instead of protecting the public’s interest, the agency’s culture and structure facilitate industry profits at the expense of recreation, conservation and natural values.
Babbitt’s comments made me think about the gas industry’s threat to Colorado cities like Longmont or to small towns where local attempts to safeguard areas from drilling can get easily overwhelmed by industry influence. If a federal agency with a $1 billion-plus annual budget and 10,000 employees is “completely outgunned and outmatched” by the oil and gas industry, as Babbitt put it, imagine the industry’s power to dictate what happens at the state level.
Case in point: Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision to join the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in its lawsuit against Longmont, which has decided to exercise its right to control drilling at the local level.
Longmont voters saw fit two years ago to enact protections to keep oil and gas out of city limits, despite industry sinking a half-million dollars into defeating the measure. Since then, four other cities have followed suit. And this fall, Coloradans could see a statewide ballot measure that would give cities and towns full authority to decide for themselves whether energy development should be allowed within their borders.
The industry is pulling out all the stops to make sure its power isn’t usurped again. Oil and gas boosters with the Orwellian moniker of Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) have already purchased more than $2 million in ads and have $2 million more in the bank to tell us how safe and normal fracking is. Turn on the TV at night or the radio in your car on the way to work. You can’t miss them. And that’s before we even know for sure if there will be a ballot measure.
Industry, with aid from plenty of well-oiled politicians, will almost certainly try to make this into a “War on Fracking” that has no basis in reality. I’m like a lot of Coloradans; I drive a car, heat my home with gas and am otherwise an active participant in the fossil-fuel economy. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to step aside and let companies call the shots every step of the way on when, where and how they drill.
The stakes are far too high. Colorado’s iconic alpine, prairie and plateau landscapes are an economic engine, with consumer spending on outdoor recreation topping $13 billion a year and generating just shy of $1 billion in state and local sales taxes. Altogether, they support 124,000 jobs — 14,000 more than the oil and gas industry.
At the local level, places like Longmont are feeling the effects of drilling inching up and into neighborhoods, where real estate agents are reporting a chilling effect on home sales. Academic research has found a correlation between decreased home values and oil and gas development in drilling hot spots like Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas.
But it doesn’t take statistics to understand that round-the-clock drilling, thousands of truck trips, industrial noise, drums full of toxic chemicals, noxious fumes, flaring wells, and waste pits and pipelines that accidentally spill don’t belong next to homes, parks, schools and playgrounds.
Longmont voters knew this two years ago. Now, some in the banking and insurance industries understand it, too. Increasingly, mortgage lenders are creating policies that don’t allow property owners to lease their land for drilling. Insurers are denying coverage where fracking is taking place. One couple in Pennsylvania was denied a refinance on their home simply because it was on land next to a drilling site.
That’s not right, especially considering that more than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of a fracking site. There is no rational reason for the value of minerals under the ground to trump the value of what happens above the ground. Think conservation values, such as an area’s water supply and recreational opportunities from hiking to biking and home prices. And then there’s the value of knowing we’re not breathing in toxic chemicals and that our peace of mind and quality of life aren’t being sacrificed to pad an oil or gas company’s bottom line.
Whether we’re talking about BLM oversight of millions of acres of public land or individual Colorado communities fighting for the right to make their own rules, what’s missing is a level playing field. Industry calls the shots and government lets it.
We deserve smarter planning and a better balance in managing industrial activity that has the potential for harming what makes Colorado so wonderful. We need to put public interest, public values and public involvement on equal ground with energy development. That’s why it was heartening to hear a former Interior secretary support changing a system that has turned into a government-sanctioned drilling onslaught.
Eric Frankowski is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is senior program director at Resource Media, a nonprofit media strategy firm, and a former city editor at the Longmont Times-Call in Colorado.