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Battle for Democracy in Fracking Fight Continues in Colorado

Energy

The battle between citizens concerned about health, safety and the environment and corporate fossil fuel interests continues to escalate in Colorado. Increasingly the battle is also about how much control citizens can exercise through the democratic process over what goes on in their own communities.

Longmont, Colorado citizens are concerned about their health, safety, and the despoilment of their environment, exemplified by scenes like this one of Long's Peak.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

In the latest skirmish in what's looking like a long war, a group of organizations filed an appeal today to uphold a fracking ban passed by voters in Longmont, Colorado in 2012. It's one of several such ballots measures passed in the state, including in Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins, despite millions spent by the fossil fuel industry to defeat them.

District court judge D.D. Mallard struck down Longmont's ballot measure in July in a challenge brought by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, finding that the state's ability to develop its oil and gas resources trumped citizen concerns. She wrote, “While the court appreciates the Longmont citizens’ sincerely held beliefs about risks to their health and safety, the court does not find this is sufficient to completely devalue the state’s interest.”

"The people voted to keep fracking away from their homes, schools and parks, and their will should be honored," said Eric Huber, Sierra Club senior managing attorney. "We believe the judge made a mistake in elevating the oil and gas industry over local interests, and trust the court of appeals will see things differently."

In addition to the Sierra Club, Earthworks, University of Denver Law Clinic, Our Longmont and Food & Water Watch are part of the coalition fighting to uphold the voters' decision.

"When a community chooses not to host fracking, they shouldn't be sued," said Earthworks' energy program director Bruce Baizel. "That's what this appeal is about, it's what the ballot initiatives were about, and it's what the governor's blue-ribbon commission must remember. It's common sense." 

The fracking ban remains in place during the appeals process, but the governor's blue ribbon commission has opened up another front in the war.

The commission was the result of an agreement between Governor John Hickenlooper and Congressman Jared Polis (CO-2), both Democrats. Polis was spearheading a drive to place two anti-fracking measures on the state ballot, but withdrew them when the governor agreed to establish the commission.

This week Hickenlooper announced the 19 panel members, chosen from more than 300 applicants. Although there are voices on the panel for stronger fracking regulations, many anti-fracking advocates remained unimpressed.

"None of the people appointed to this commission were involved in the local elections in 2013 in which four cities voted to ban or postpone fracking," said Fort Collins environmental activist Gary Wockner. "This committee simply does not represent the diversity of Colorado or the people who pushed the issue forward in the first place."

Nonprofit citizen journalism outlet Watchdog Wire Colorado suggested the commission might give the impression of being biased.

"The membership of the commission is split among industry representatives, environmentalists and politicians," it found. "However, the industry representatives are heavily weighted to large companies, industries that have already shown willingness to support new regulations and Hickenlooper campaign contributors."

Earthworks' Baizel questioned the entire underlying mandate of the commission—“to ensure that Colorado’s economy and environment remain healthy and robust," saying that it was missing two critical pieces that should be considered: the local democratic process and the climate.

"Given the limited mandate and commission make-up, it is difficult to see how this last, best attempt at reform of the ‘oil and gas trumps everything’ regulatory framework will change the larger political push that brought it into being," he said. "Ultimately the true measure of this commission will be simple. If it offers ways that local communities can decide for themselves if they want to live with oil and gas development, it will be a success. Anything short of that will just be howling at the moon."

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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