Town seeks to protect health and well-being of residents; critics say local bans violate state law
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Creating yet another headache for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s pro-fracking administration, Fort Collins this week voted to ban oil and gas exploration — including hydraulic fracturing — within city limits.
The 5-2 city council vote came after a several hours of citizen testimony, with a large majority of residents apparently in favor of a drilling ban. To become final, the ordinance must be passed by another vote in a few weeks.
Arguments over the ban remain the same. Supporters of the ban say the industrial processes associated with fossil fuel development don’t belong anywhere near residential areas, and the chemicals and air pollution associated with drilling pose a significant health risk.
Critics of the ban claim that the state, through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, is solely responsible for regulating fossil fuel extraction, and that local bans like in Fort Collins, will affect the ability of fossil fuel companies to effectively do business in Colorado.
They also claim there’s no proof that oil and gas drilling results in any significant public health risks, but there’s mounting evidence that many of the chemicals associated with fracking are endocrine-disrupting substances that can even result in transgenic impacts.
“Fort Collins took an important step forward to protect its citizens and their health and property,” said Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action, a national environmental organization that has 2,000 members in Fort Collins. “Fracking is a dangerous industrial process that emits cancer-causing chemicals that should not be allowed in residential areas.”
Other residents who formed a coaliton opposing the ban said they don’t see health risks.
“This ban on an essential and safe process is a waste of time and public resources,” said Debbie Healy a mother and resident of Fort Collins. “This oil field has existed since before I was born, and hydraulic fracturing has been practiced there during my entire lifetime. I don’t fear for the health of my family because I understand the science and facts behind this technology as well as the regulations that are in place and constantly being updated. The ban would achieve little more than making a political statement.”
The fossil fuel industry says the ban is illegal for a city or other jurisdiction to pass oil and gas rules that usurp the authority of the state to regulate operational aspects of the industry.
In a statement, Colorado Oil and Gas Association president and CEO Tisha Shuller raised the threat of a legal challenge to the Fort Collins ordinance.
“It is unfortunate that the Ft Collins City Council, by a vote of 5 to 2, has decided to take such drastic and unnecessary action with its vote …” Shuller said. “We ardently hope that this ordinance will be defeated on second reading so there will not have to be discussions of going to court to allow an activity that the State Supreme Court has clearly stated cannot be banned within a city, county, or municipality,” she said.
In some ways, the Fort Collins move is more symbolic than anything else, as there is currently only one operator drilling within city limits, and those operations would be allowed to continue under the proposed ban. But the industry may be more concerned about the municipal-level uprising, and whether it might spark similar bans in other jurisdictions.
The State Legislature may also play a role in this debate, with several pending bills that would address various aspects of fossil fuel development in Colorado.