Democracy in Action as Fracking is Voted Down in Colorado Springs
By Phillip Doe
If the public are bound to yield obedience to laws to which they cannot give their approbation, they are slaves to those who make such laws and enforce them. —Candidus in the Boston Gazette, 1772
Colorado Springs is Colorado's second largest city. Perhaps unfairly, it is also known nationally as a bastion of conservative politics. Yet, a little over a week ago, on March 12, conservative and liberal—indeed people from every shade in the political spectrum—found common cause. They stood united in fighting the prospect of the oil and gas industry taking over their city, one open space at a time. They stood together at a rally on a chill-wind morning in front of the Colorado Springs City Hall, and then in a packed council chamber to testify against fracking rules and regulations that would have given the industry the keys to the city.
Fortunately, the concerned citizens of Colorado Springs prevailed in convincing the majority of city council members that fracking is not safe. Now the city must start from scratch with new rules and no drilling can take place in the meantime.
Check out this video of the rally:
Colorado is a strong “home rule” state. That is, cities and towns with home rule charters have powers superior to the state in matters of local jurisdiction. This straightforward declaration is found in Article 20, Section 6 of the Colorado Constitution. It says in part:
“The people of each city or town … shall always have the power to make, amend, add to or replace” their “charter” … This ... "shall be its organic law and extend to all its local and municipal matters.”
“Such charter … shall supersede within the territorial limits … of said city or town any law of the state in conflict therewith.”
Predictably, the courts and legislature have made a mockery of the latter provision when it comes to the oil and gas industry having its way with the local folk. Oil and gas development has been declared by them to be a matter of supreme state concern over which the state and only the state has jurisdictional powers.
It means in practice that the industry does not need the consent of the governed, only the consent of Governor Hickenlooper, Hick to his friends. Hickenlooper, famous for speed-dialing up his political career by jumping out of an airplane as a campaign stunt and wearing an open-throated shirt under his suit except at coronations, recently told a Senate committee he had drunk fracking fluid and had found it safe.
My colleague Wes Wilson at Be the Change told me, “Hick’s drinking habits might pass for science in Louisiana, where creationism is also taught as science, but not here, where empirical evidence is still consulted and weighed, at least by those outside politics.”
No clearer demonstration of the wackiness of the Governor’s new religion of public-safety-through-selective-tasting was more evident than at a March 5 town hall meeting in Fort Collins. There Colorado State University’s Monfort Professor of Climate Science, Scott Denning, told those assembled that he had worked as a field geologist in the industry, and that fracking is a dangerous, heavy industrial activity that should not be allowed in any city. He also said that new data gathered in Weld County showed the methane (natural gas) production losses were at nine percent. Over the critical short term, the next 20 years, this makes methane 4.5 times worse than coal for climate change because of methane’s much greater heat trapping capacity.
His remarks concerning the dangers of fracking were not necessarily remarkable for their originality, for scientists and activists have made similar statements from across the country. What was remarkable was the Stepford Wives reaction of Hickenlooper’s show-case representatives on the panel—one, the second in command at the state oil and gas commission, and the other, the head of air quality for the state department of public health. They did not engage his assertions. They simply stared blankly ahead and told the audience of their agencies many accomplishments. Clearly, for them, happiness is playing housewife to Anadarko, Encana and Shell, and perhaps servicing their neighbors Noble, Anschutz and Conoco when needed.
But fortunately, in the end, the Colorado Springs City Council, several of whom had been well tutored by local activists on the dangers of fracking to their city, voted down the rules.
Enriching the tableau being played out that day in Colorado Springs was the introduction of an initiative to ban fracking within the city by a local grassroots group. It is human rights based, focusing on the constitutional guarantees of the health, safety and the general welfare of every citizen, the guarantees, they argue, that give government its only legitimacy.
They hope the city will refer it onto the ballot. If not, they will go forward with it as an initiative. To be successful, they will need to collect perhaps as many as 27,000 signatures. The citizen’s initiative, or the right of direct democracy as it’s sometimes called, is the process the citizens of Longmont, Colorado were forced to take last year to enforce a fracking ban within their city. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, are now suing the city. Incredibly, Hick is openly cheering them on.
During the Colorado Springs council meeting, a couple councilmembers provided excellent public theatre. Realtor Tim Leigh, who voted for the rules, and some would say against the people, said he was voting for the rules because he didn’t like the way the public had conducted itself, that it hadn’t been decorous enough. Someone behind me muttered he should have been present at the French Revolution. Another in the back of the room yelled that he didn’t think a “spite vote” should be considered valid. A woman sitting next to me wondered if he’d ever had to share his sand pile when he was young?
Equally entertaining was the exchange between Councilwoman Angela Dougan and the public. She had been criticized from the audience for constantly being on her cell phone during the several hours of public testimony. In explaining her vote for the rules she said she had been on her phone because she was fact checking the assertions made by the public and could find no evidence of their accuracy. This was met with moans.
I was told that Dougan, very recently, had called the police department—in a theatrical panic, perhaps, since her husband is on the police force—when she got a hand delivered flyer in her mail box from an anti-fracking grassroots group. She complained she didn’t want them to know where she lived. It is unclear if she was relieved to find out it had been a saturation effort. That she had not, in fact, been targeted by the rabble.
Council members voting against the rules most often cited the high handedness the Governor and his staff had shown in denying any modification to the state’s regulations. Asked and denied were requests to allow the city to do its own air monitoring of fracking operations, require the installation of water monitoring wells around every gas well, place all residential areas off limits to fracking and allow the hiring of one city inspector, underwriting his salary by charging a $5,000 fee for a drilling permit review. These were the suggestions of Councilwoman Jan Martin. She characterized them as modest and reasonable. Because the Governor’s representative, Matt Lepore, had rejected them out of hand, she voted against Hick’s rules, saying she could not vote for rules that did not give any consideration to the constitutional rights of home rule cities and the concerns of local citizens.
Both council members Brandy Williams and Val Snider said they were supporting what they perceived to be the majority view that the state rules were not adequate to protect the citizens of Colorado Springs. Days earlier the local weekly newspaper, The Independent, published the results of a poll it had taken showing 51 percent of those polled supported a ban, 43 percent opposed and six percent were undecided. Phil Anschutz of Anschutz Exploration Corporation, one of his many corporations, recently acquired the Colorado Springs Gazette. He is believed to have fairly vast oil and gas holdings in the state, as he does across the nation. No poll on the merits of fracking is expected in this daily newspaper.
Rumors continue to circulate at the capitol that the industry has taken its own poll on fracking, with the results showing opposition to the way the industry and the Governor are running roughshod over citizen rights. Some have speculated this phantom poll may have played into Ultra Energy’s announcement it would not develop, at least for now, its mineral rights on 18,000 acres of Colorado Springs land in a place known locally as Banning Lewis Ranch. The city annexed it several years ago for open space after a land developer went into bankruptcy. Whether Ultra’s announcement was merely a ploy to get the city to think it was out of immediate danger from fracking is unknown. What is known is that it didn’t work.
Citizens addressing the council were often concerned about water. Several wondered how and why the industry was apparently able to get water for fracking when the city was already in drought mode with twice a week watering restrictions? Only days later, Denver Water, the largest water purveyor in the state, announced it would be draining Antero Reservoir to save 4,000 acre-feet in evaporation losses and that it too was considering twice a week watering restrictions. The reservoir’s storage of 19,000 acre-feet would be released downstream to lower reservoirs where the evaporation would be less.
Antero is a world-class, flat-water trout fishery. I’m told it receives more than 100,000 visitor days a year. It is one of the chief economic drivers in Park County, Colorado, the rural mountain county in which it is situated. Studies done at Colorado State University on recreation values suggest it may contribute more than $4 million a year to the local economy. The last time it was drained, it didn’t reopen for seven years, representing a loss of $24 million to our economy.
The best conservative estimate of how much water the industry will need to frack around 2,000 wells this year—half horizontal and half traditional—is about 16,000 acre-feet. This is four times the loss through evaporation at Antero. In fact, it approaches the entire storage capacity of Antero. If the industry continues to ramp up to where they are drilling mostly horizontally wells at a rate of more than 3,000 a year, as predicted, the water requirements could easily exceed 40,000 acre feet annually—horizontal drilling water demand goes up exponentially compared to traditional fracking.
Colorado Springs uses about 74,000 acre-feet annually. But here’s the rub, when the city uses water, half is returned to the system to be reused. When the frackers use it, they consume all of it. More accurately, they destroy it for any other use. So, from a consumption standpoint, which is what really matters, the industry in just a very few years will be using more water than Colorado Springs does today. If one adds in the prospect of refracks for the 150,000 wells expected in the state in 30 years, the demand easily exceeds that of Denver which uses 260,000 acre feet annually.
The Governor’s office and the Water Buffaloes seem unconcerned. This may partly be explained by the fact the Water Buffaloes get a substantial portion of their funding for new water projects from severance taxes paid by the oil industry to the state—life is often full of these small surprises. A larger surprise for most people is that of the 30 gas producing counties in the state, operators in only five of them even pay a severance tax to the state since local taxes paid, when combined with 19 statutory oil and gas subsidies, fully offset the severance debt. The largest surprise is that the industry pays no net severance taxes from Weld County, the fourth largest gas producing county in the U.S., proving once again, as many have argued, that tax laws are written by the rich for the rich.
Several days after I attended the Colorado Springs council meeting, I read newspaper reports of a large uncontrolled leak and probable ground water contamination in Garfield County, Colorado, near the town of Parachute. I tried to miraculously consider, for purposes of social and environmental analysis, what if this incident was in Colorado Springs?
It seems the leak was first verbally reported in Garfield County on March 8. It was discovered by accident during unrelated excavation activity. Ten days later it was still uncontrolled and the source still unidentified. As of March 19, the state had not yet issued a cease and desist order to Williams Energy, which operates a gas plant on Parachute Creek. Despite the delay, it claimed an order was in the works. Parachute Creek empties into the Colorado River which is federally protected under the Clean Water Act. More than 60,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater and 5,000 gallons of oil had so far been recovered, but, remarkably, some would say unbelievably, the source of the leak was still unknown. To protect its water supply, the town of Parachute had closed its municipal intake on Parachute Creek. According to locals, industry leaks and spills are common though they are usually covered up and go unreported—Hick is a big supporter of the industry’s self-reporting regimen. One of the Colorado Springs activist leaders, Laurel Biedermann, told me, “if you believe in the efficacy of oil industry self reporting you probably believe in flying unicorns too.”
Try to imagine a city of 360,000 people not storming city hall over such a lackluster effort. Colorado Springs has a police force of more than 600 officers, a fire department of about 400 firefighters, runs its own utilities and has a public health department. In a word, it has all the accoutrements of a modern middle-sized American city. How the Governor continues to claim that he can do a better job of protecting the local population with his merry band of 16 inspectors at the oil and gas commission than the city can is simply ludicrous, it may even border on malfeasance. Is it any wonder that many cities are moving toward an outright ban?
To make the day in Colorado Springs complete, mentioning of the citizens supporting the fracking rules needs to be included. Though few in number, one stood out. Full of the insouciance that comes only when one is sure the message he is carrying will be greeted with delight by his paymasters, Shawn Paige was ripe with economic wisdom of a kind, sure that he knew the true American way. Paige, deputy director for the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an organization funded by the Koch brothers, said the rules were great, just what the country needed, and that we must learn to live with risk if we want to live in heated homes. Its been suggested that someone should ask him at the next council meeting if the mess in Parachute was the kind of risk he thought the people of Colorado Springs needed to endure to have a heated home?
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.