David, Goliath and Colorado’s intensifying debate about drilling
by Allen Best
In Colorado’s intensifying debate about oil and natural gas drilling, each side has claimed to be David going into battle against a carpet-bagging Goliath.
Now, with Loveland’s election about a proposed two-year moratorium history, and the finance disclosure reports submitted, as required by law, we’re getting an idea of who the real Goliath really was. It’s really no surprise. Drilling interests spent a massive amount of money to eke out a narrow victory in Loveland by a narrow margin of 52 to 48 percent. They also got the support of the local newspaper, the Reporter-Herald, and the local chamber of commerce.
In a story posted by the Colorado Independent on July 7, the grassroots group called Protect Our Loveland spent $8,000. Protect Colorado, an industry aligned group, spent $2.2 million in just the last two weeks of June and had a total war chest of more than $3 million. Biblical parables aside, it looks like Goliath won once again.
This is very different than the story than B.J. Nikkel, a former state legislator from Loveland, gave me in April as I researched a story for Colorado Biz Magazine. She said that out-of-state environmental groups had used the university towns of the Northern Front Range, Boulder and Fort Collins, to pluck easy victories (residents of nearby Broomfield, Lafayette and Longmont have also adopted restrictions on drilling). And she hinted darkly that Tom Steyer, the retired hedge fund billionaire who has been investing large sums in hopes of defeating the Keystone XL pipeline, would likely arrive to drop large amounts of money.
Of course, nobody disputes that Jared Polin, the congressman from Boulder, has large amounts of money, and he has been pushing ballot initiatives that would more sharply restrict oil and gas drilling operations. His proposals are nowhere near as restrictive as Amendment 75, which is also coming out of Boulder County and would totally upset Colorado’s apple cart by giving local jurisdictions broad latitude in rejecting proposals. Currently, local governments are subsets of the state. This would make them more equal, however, Tom Steyer’s billions haven’t shown up. The only out-of-state billionaires with their paws in this fight are the oil and gas companies.
Film has been a powerful stick in this argument. Josh Fox premiered his movie “Gasland” at Mountainfilm in Telluride several years ago. The pivotal image came form Colorado: Somebody near Fort Lupton, north of Denver, used a cigarette lighter to ignite a flame from a kitchen faucet. The implication was that it was caused by drilling. Months before, Colorado regulators and drillers had disputed that allegation, arguing that it almost certainly was caused by biogenic sources. In other words, the methane was natural in the drinking water, not from deeper underground, from the formations exploited for natural gas.
This year, a set of movies called “Dear Governor Hickenlooper” was shown at Mountainfilm. The seminal figure is an individual named Shane Davis who identifies himself as “fractivist,” even including it in his e-mail title. He makes for an interesting figure, having actually lived in the drilling country of Colorado’s Weld County for a couple of years. If you’re in a mood to be persuaded, he makes powerful arguments, and the film is now making the rounds. In Telluride, he came across as smart, determined, and surly. He sees a line in the sand of the Wattenberg field, and the people on the other side are bad people. He’s David, and they’re Goliaths.
Denver’s Westword sorts through this film as well as the broad debate in a lengthy story this week. It doesn’t try very hard to see the world from the eyes of the drillers, but it’s a good and worthy read nonetheless (and frankly has a few lines I wish I had used). It also frankly adds some perplexity to the story from Fort Lupton, making me wonder if I dug hard enough in that case when I did some reporting last year on oil and gas and water.
Where will this all end? Who knows, but I doubt there will be much hand-shaking with truth in the coming months and certainly not nuance. We’re entering that stage when all the rhetoric is black and white.
Ultimately the issue is about risk and how we define risk. Nothing is without risk, but he allegations in this debate about oil and natural gas drilling are that the dangers to people and the environment upon which they depend have not been adequately disclosed or, perhaps, are not understood.
I like how I ended my story in Colorado Biz: “Whether cheap energy today has hidden, long-term costs is ultimately what Colorado voters in November must decide.”
Again, check out:
• The Westword story, the ambitiously titled “How Colorado became ground zero in America’s energy wars.”
• Both shorter and broader, but somewhat outdated, is my own report in Colorado Biz, “Energy: Divided over drilling.”