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Published: Sunday, 12/9/2012

Colo. town draws strength from Pittsburgh, Challenge to fracking leads to ban on procedure

BY LAURA OLSON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PITTSBURGH — In a suburban Colorado town this fall, Michael Bellmont has been using the city of Pittsburgh as an inspiration and rallying cry.

The insurance agent-turned-activist struck out on the warpath against hydraulic fracturing, a process that was coming closer to his hometown of Longmont, and one he had come to view as unregulated and risk-laden.

He had read about the drilling ban approved 1,500 miles away in Pittsburgh in 2010. It left such an impression that he gave the Pennsylvania city a shout-out in the guitar tune he wrote about making sure “we’ll have no frickin’ frackin’ in this town.”

“I thought, by golly, if Pittsburgh can do it, we can do it too,” Mr. Bellmont said in an interview last week.

He was right.

In last month’s balloting, the initiative he worked on to prohibit hydraulic fracturing sailed to victory with support from about 60 percent of Longmont’s voters.

Their approval turned a recently beefed-up set of local oil and gas drilling regulations — which already had prompted a lawsuit from state environmental officials — into an outright ban similar to Pittsburgh’s.

Supporters cheered the result as providing residents with protections from potential air and water risks that they believed state and local government had failed to guarantee. Some nearby communities, including Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, have begun overhauling their rules for energy companies.

But state and industry officials prefer to keep drilling oversight powers mostly centralized, with both saying they’re attempting to reach out to local towns that harbor concerns about the latest drilling technology.

“It’s been a concern that we would see a patchwork of local regulations,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “While we want to police the industry well, we don’t want them to necessarily pull up stakes and leave town. Having a system where you have 300 different sets of regulation would not be conducive.”

Mineral extraction and its related regulations are nothing new to Colorado, which has seen plenty of activity in its western region in particular for decades.

But with the discovery several years ago that the Niobrara geologic formation’s oil reserves could be accessed using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, extraction reignited in northeastern Colorado.

The region around Longmont, about 40 miles north of Denver, has grown in population since its historic gas wells were drilled. As towns grew, the distance between suburban development and drilling areas shrank.

The Niobrara find also came as the 2010 anti-fracking documentary Gasland began to bring national attention to the process of extracting gas by shattering rock using water laced with sand and chemicals.

“This renewed or enhanced interest in the region and more attention from activists, they bumped into each other,” Mr. Hartman said.

Colorado state government significantly rewrote its drilling regulations in 2007, but last year officials began to hear concerns that the required setback distances — which weren’t altered in the 2007 changes — would allow drilling too close to homes and schools.

The state now is amid its rule-making process to alter setbacks and adjust groundwater monitoring procedures, with more hearings this week on the setback proposal.

However, as state bureaucracy weaves and winds through hearings and revisions, some local governments aren’t waiting around.

Longmont City Council in July approved an ordinance that prohibits drilling activity in residential areas. Among other provisions, the ordinance requires a 750-foot setback from homes or other occupied structures, compared with the state’s 350-foot requirement and certain groundwater monitoring procedures.

State officials threatened to sue if the ordinance passed, and after the 5-2 council vote, the oil and gas commission filed its legal brief.

Mr. Hartman described the lawsuit as a “highly unusual” step for the agency.

“We feel that if this is the direction that this is going, if cities want to develop extremely stringent regulations, we need the court to guide us,” he said.

The pending litigation against Longmont focuses on the city ordinance, not the citizen initiative that was sparked from the growing frustrations of activists such as Mr. Bellmont and his group, Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont.

Hundreds of volunteers rallied and knocked on doors to spread the word about the proposed ban, as drillers reportedly spent $500,000 on their own efforts to defeat it.

Activists also drew headlines when Gov. John Hickenlooper participated in a forum there this fall, drawing a crowd of angry protesters shouting that he should end fracking in Colorado.

Mr. Bellmont said that while at first he was supportive of the effort to change local setbacks, that goal shifted to a ban as he read more about potential health hazards from fracking.

“City government was not going to respond to their duty to protect citizens from a health mandate,” Mr. Bellmont said. “We realized there was no alternative but for the citizens to take the matter into their own hands.”

Despite the outspoken opposition in Longmont, state officials and industry representatives say the town’s reaction to increased activity has been the exception, not the norm.

Officials point to success in their effort to designate local government contacts in each town to aid in disseminating information about well-pad accidents or other site activity.

For the industry’s part, the state trade group has been working with Colorado Springs on its draft drilling rules and is reaching out to a number of other municipalities.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Laura Olson is the Harrisburg bureau chief for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Laura Olson at: lolson@post-gazette.com

 



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