DENVER – On Sept. 10, 1969, six and a half miles south of Rulison, Colorado, a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded in the subterranean depths of the Piceance Basin.
The device, more than twice as powerful as the weapon at Hiroshima and with muscle equivalent to 40,000 tons of TNT, was an unorthodox tool in a grand experiment to free natural gas and kickstart a boom. The nuclear age wanted to give the oil and gas age a hand up.
“It felt like a very slow-moving tremble,” Parachute resident Judy Beasley said. “It was like a flowing of energy [underground].”
Miles closer to the blast zone it “was like a train rushing up the canyon,” Lee Hayward told Look Magazine in 1970. Hayward’s family owned the land where the experiment took place.
“Cliffs started pouring rocks. It was quite a show, really,” Hayward said.
Go back 50 years and the scene in Parachute (in 1969 it was referred to as Grand Valley) felt almost festive. Enterprising types peddled souvenirs. While a few dozen activists protested, most locals like Beasley had the afternoon of the blast off work. Everyone was told to be outside at the 3 p.m. detonation time for fear the shot would damage buildings and cause injuries. Roadblocks were setup and a throng of reporters, G-men, scientists, congressmen and foreign observers descended on this sleepy section of what is now the I-70 corridor to bear witness.
“We were whooping it up,” Beasley said. “We were really fortunate that we didn’t have that much damage.”
In the end the blast caused few problems for the locals. Some chimneys lost bricks, including Beasley’s. A few pickle jars fell to the ground in her pantry.
Several couples who lived within five miles of Hayward’s land ignored the evacuation and rode out the detonation. The wife of William Rankin told the Associated Press they planned to get their dogs into the station wagon and then “have a picnic down in the corn patch.”
As much as times change, the promise heard in many rural towns remains the same. There are much needed jobs and economic development underfoot, we need only unlock the riches from tight shale and other stubborn rocks. Rulison was perhaps the grandest vision of that ever put forward on the Western Slope.
In Hindsight, This Wasn’t a Job for an Atom Bomb
Drill rigs and well pads dot the landscape today. Garfield and Mesa counties — along with state-leading Weld on the Front Range — transformed into energy powerhouses thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a process where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced underground to free the fossil fuels within.
But in the 1950s, the idea was that a bomb might be better.
Project Rulison was part of a much larger government initiative called The Plowshare Program. It was an effort focused on peaceful and commercial applications for nuclear explosives after World War II.
“They saw [Rulison] as an alternative to fracking that in their minds would be cheaper, it would do a better job, and therefore companies involved in the effort would make a lot more money.”
Houston, Texas-based Austral Oil and CER Geonuclear Corporation footed 90 percent of the freight while the federal Atomic Energy Commission, now the U.S. Department of Energy, picked up the remainder of the trial balloon’s cost. In a community thank-you advert found in the archive at the Rifle Branch of the Garfield County library, the chairman and president of Austral practically gushed about the possibilities.
“We are proud to be a permanent part of this community, and in the months and years ahead, we will do our best to be good neighbors and merit the support you have generously given us. We are confident — that as our program progresses — we will be able to produce natural gas from Rulison Field by nuclear stimulation, safely and economically, to benefit your communities, your state and our nation.”
Rulison wasn’t the first attempt to give oil and gas development an atomic lift. Plowshares tried the concept first in New Mexico. Project Gasbuggy used a 26-kiloton thermonuclear bomb just 4,200 feet underground but there was too much contamination in the result. The scientists behind Rulison hoped a device that relied on nuclear fission instead of fusion would produce far less of the radioactive element tritium. No radiation was released into the air after the Sept. 10 shot and the initial results indicated a success — and Plowshares gave the greenlight to another test.
That next experiment took place May 17, 1973 in Rio Blanco County, 35 miles northwest of Rifle with three bigger bombs — but that’s another story.
Modern Rural Living at Surface Ground Zero
Today the Rulison site is mostly forgotten. A small, tombstone-like monument stands sentinel in an open field behind a fence that says “No Trespassing.” As it was in 1969, Surface Ground Zero remains in private hands. The test was never on government land.
Coreen Hamilton owns the 26-acre stretch of land where the blast cavity lurks underneath. A previous landowner built the log cabin that Hamilton lives in, which she purchased last summer.
“We find surprises every day,” said Hamilton. “That’s cable wire,” she said as she pointed to black cord jutting out of the dirt that used to bring electricity to the site. She pointed to a second slab of concrete. “There’s a pad.” That’s where the generator stood.
FARMINGTON, N.M. – Nestled in the heart of San Juan County, Farmington has a population of about 45,000, making it a bustling hub in rural northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest city for hundreds of miles, and its major highway is a two-lane road. Bordering the Navajo Nation, Farmington is also home to abundant natural beauty, cultural diversity and an economy that has stably rested on two major coal-based employers.
That once-solid economic base is shakier all the time. San Juan County houses two predominantly coal-fired power plants, the San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and the Four Corners Generating Station. While the oil and gas industry has undergone cyclical booms and busts in the region, coal has been the steady economic foundation for decades.
Then, on March 22, 2019, New Mexico’s governor, the Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed the Energy Transition Act into law. It requires the state’s utilities to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. To meet the new standard, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the majority owner of the San Juan Generating Station, plans to shut down the plant as it moves away from coal.
According to the utility, the San Juan station will likely close its doors in three years’ time. The loss of the station will be mean much more to the community than the 497 megawatts of electricity it generates: the plant provides jobs directly and indirectly to about 1,600 workers, some 27 percent of them from the Navajo Nation.
The announcement about the pending closure of the plant — and the dramatic loss of work in the nearby mine that supplies its coal — is a clear sign of the trend away from coal in the greater Four Corners region. Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station is slated to retire in 2019, the Four Corners plant in 2031, the Magna, Utah plant in 2025, and the Nucla, Colorado plant in 2022.
The backdrop of this trend is the upside-down economics of coal plants, which were once cheaper than most rival energy sources. But that advantage has been largely nullified by the rise of natural gas, now plentiful since the advent of fracking, and the more recent price decreases spurring the rise of renewables like solar and wind power. The economics are powerful, but so is the specter of climate change, which is exacerbated by the tons of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants burning coal.
San Juan station is the largest source of air pollution in the state, releasing over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. It is also expensive to maintain and can no longer produce energy at competitive prices.
Farmington’s leadership is pushing for the adoption of carbon-capture technology at the plant in hopes to keep it running by giving it something else to sell. If that does not work and the plant closes, a drastic change is looming for San Juan County’s way of life. It will, disproportionately affect tribal members.
A PNM representative said, “these power plants are an important part of their local communities. That is why the Energy Transition Act provides for not only a transition plan for the workers but also $20 million for the local community.” These funds will be used for workforce retraining, economic development, and will support the department focused on Indian affairs.
A Tear in the Fabric of Farmington’s Life
“It’s become part of the fabric and the culture of not only Farmington but also the Navajo reservation,” Timothy Kienitz, principal of Farmington High School, said of the plant. Bordering the reservation to the West, Navajos make up 41 percent of the high school’s student body. “There are generations of families who have worked at the plant and they see that as a source of pride. If that goes away, then all of a sudden you take away that self-sufficiency,” Kienitz said.
A foreshadowing of how plant closures could affect the city came when two of SJGS’s four coal-fired generators were retired in 2017. “We did see a higher number of free and reduced lunches.” Kienitz said. Now, 52 percent of his students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
The San Juan Mine is the sole provider of coal for SJGS, so each enterprise is the lifeblood of the other. Bob Green, a supervisor at the mine for more than 17 years, was one of its first hires when it opened in 2000. “The mine provided the coal to the power plant for two million customers and 80 percent of the electricity that PNM supplied. We needed to mine about 6.5 to 7 million tons a year to supply the power plant. When all four units were running it burned about 9,500 tons per day,” Green said.
Green added that working at the mine created a sense of camaraderie, a closely-bound community that would be unrooted if employees had to find a job far away. “Mining is inherently difficult, with changing conditions and changing weather,” Green said. “You pull together and you take pride in that. You become family as important as your own family at home.”
“We’re all like brothers and sisters here,” said Kenny Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and a heavy equipment operator at the mine. “It’s been 10 hours out of the day with one another so we all get along.”
According to PNM, about 27 percent of its employees at the generating station are Navajo. On the Navajo Nation, 43 percent of residents live below the poverty line. “The Navajo Nation has an unemployment rate of almost 50 percent, and we are going to add to that,” said Mike Stark, San Juan’s county manager.
“It’s really going to take a hit on the Navajo Nation,” said Kenny Benally. “It’s going to be hard for everybody on and off the reservation.”
Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell, said, “It would be a ding on the Four Corners region, but it would really hurt the Navajo people. These are skilled labor union jobs that pay well and if they go away it will hurt people that can least afford it.”
In many households on the reservation, multiple generations live together. “In many cases it may be one person who works at that power plant or in that mine who is not just taking care of their family but also taking care of extended family,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett. “If saving the world means that we have to kill humans to do it, then I don’t know if I want to save the world.”
Employees would not be the only ones affected by the closure of the plant and mine. The whole city of Farmington would face a wrenching adjustment. A study commissioned by Four Corners Economic Development last year estimated that closing the plant would lead to more than $105 million in lost wages. As Bob Green explained, “A lot of these highly-paid people have brought in things to the community that we wouldn’t normally have.” Green’s wife works at the medical facility in Farmington.
“The mine and power plant workers go to Farmington and buy a lot,” Kenny Benally added.
If the plant closes, many of the county’s longtime residents may be forced to move away, finding it harder to support their families. “Most of the people that work at the mine are high school graduates. Those people can make really good money. A starting person could make upwards of $65,000 a year,” Green said. “This game is political, legislative, public sentiment and economic. Things out of their control. And time is running out.”
Jerry Benally, another heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation, is already looking for jobs. Without a college degree, it is difficult to find one that pays as well as the mine. Only seven percent of Navajo Nation members have a college degree. “There are jobs out there, but they are minimum wage, up to maybe $20 an hour if you’re lucky,” he said. “I already told my wife to plan on it shutting down in 2022.”
New Futures Without the Generating Station — or Maybe With It
One possible future sees Farmington as a depopulated ghost town. But depending on changes in circumstances and the adaptability of residents, other futures may await.
Moving forward, northwest New Mexico has potential for renewable energy development as well as outdoor recreation. A new water park, Brookside Bay, is already under construction.
Another possibility for the town is supported by Farmington’s leaders: keeping the San Juan Generating Station open by capturing and storing its abundant carbon emissions underground.
“A lot of those in the legislature say we are pro-coal, anti-renewable,” said County Manager Mike Stark. “The reality is that we want to hang on to those good-paying jobs and tax revenues as long as we can.”
Supporters say this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration, can offset 90 percent of the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions. As proof of the seriousness of this effort, city leaders have announced an agreement for the San Juan plant to be purchased by Enchant Energy, a subsidiary of the venture capital firm Acme Equities.
Enchant plans to operate the coal plant while installing the carbon capture technology. Once collected, the company says, the carbon dioxide can then be used for enhanced oil recovery, a process where compressed carbon is piped into older wells to dislodge oil. Industrial plants in the United States capture 65 million tons of carbon each year, 60 million of which is used for enhanced oil recovery. Companies that store carbon by injecting it into the earth can also receive up to $50 per ton in tax credits.
Jason Selch, co-founder of Acme Equities, said, “The plant emits about 6.6 million tons, and we are going to reduce emissions by 6 million tons by putting in CCS. All the cars in New Mexico emit 3 million tons total. It is taking something that is a bad thing and changing it into a good thing.”
Nathan Welch, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Labs, said that CCS is actively being researched by numerous groups at Los Alamos National Lab. “My group alone has many projects running from exploring better engineering of CO2 injection wellbores, the pipes used to deliver CO2 to the subsurface, along with studies on rock behavior, all the way to advancing acoustic monitoring of wells to better detect if a system is leaking,” said Welch.
“This will be the largest scale that it’s ever been attempted on, but there seems to be great support at the federal level to infuse money into this project and see it be successful,” said Mike Stark, county manager. The carbon capture technology will find a use for the excess carbon dioxide, and will help to keep the jobs in the county.
With the trend towards decarbonization, Justin Ong, Program Director at the market-oriented clean energy nonprofit ClearPath, believes that CCS carbon capture technology can “extend the useful life of plants” and “continue the production of coal in an environmentally friendly way.” According to Ong, “17 million metric tons of CO2 have been injected at multiple sites total.”
Critics of the partnership between Enchant Energy and the city of Farmington are skeptical of carbon capture, which has yet to achieve widespread commercial adoption in the United States. Attempts to implement CCS technology have been unsuccessful; at the Kemper project in Mississippi, delays tripled the original cost estimate of $2.2 billion. Environmentalists describe CCS as only a band-aid to save the coal industry instead of a long-term clean solution. Storing carbon underground may also contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes.
Enchant Energy has contracted with the engineering firm Sargent and Lundy on a feasibility study of installing carbon capture technology at San Juan station.
The dream of carbon capture in San Juan County is not a new one. A study conducted a decade ago by the same firm concluded that converting the plant’s remaining two units for CCS could cost $2 billion. Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation poured millions of dollars into planning for the Desert Rock project, which never reached fruition. This was to be a power plant with carbon capture technology that would sit directly on tribal land.
Economic and Energy Diversification
Farmington has recently installed road signs that highlight the natural assets of the region, under the motto, “Jolt Your Journey.”
“We’ve tried to put a new face on Farmington. We are not just coal and oil and gas,” said Farmington’s Mayor Nate Duckett. “We are also hiking trails and off-road trails and rivers and lakes and camping and fishing.” He says he hopes to “build a new mindset that we are a community where active families and outdoor lovers can thrive.”
Much like the state of New Mexico as a whole, Farmington also has the potential to be a national power in renewable energy, with an abundance of wind and more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Massive wind and solar projects are being built in southern New Mexico, like the 522 megawatt Sagamore Wind Project, which will be the largest wind farm in the state’s history. The SunZia and Western Spirit transmission line projects will enable power to be exported to major markets.
“We are in a real need now for economic diversification,” said Mike Eisenfeld, Energy and Climate Program Manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. “There are more sustainable ways of creating electricity that need to be fully vetted. We need to help with the transition, but we also need to think about diversifying our economy here.”
It is not clear what the coming changes in Farmington will mean for the mine and power plant workers now on edge. “I’m just going to ride it out till the end, until the last day,” said Kenny Benally, maintaining his optimism. “That’s all you can do, hope for the best.”
This story was first published by the …& The West Blog at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. You can find the original article here.
DENVER – More than a dozen new energy and environment bills are headed to Gov. Jared Polis for a signature. They cover an array of issues from the oversight of electrical generating companies to how companies have to factor climate change into their decision making to the nitty gritty of how oil and gas drilling is governed in the state.
“Given the priority we saw voters make of energy and the environment this past fall they were a really an important part of this past legislative session,” said Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, an environmental nonprofit.
While momentous, the actual impacts of some policies are yet to be determined. At least two — the oil rule and greenhouse gas reduction goals — will see many details decided in rulemaking by state agencies.
Agencies will release basic ideas on their plans for new regulations. Then they’ll release a draft rule for the public to weigh in on. Some environmental groups plan to put pressure on the state to hold evening sessions, so the public has a better chance to share their concerns.
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The oil and gas law, for example, will require at least a half-dozen rules to be written or rewritten. That means it could take years — not months — to completely spell out details of measures that could have the biggest impact on curbing climate change.
“So the outcome of this session we won’t know fully for multiple years to come,” said Scott Prestidge, communications director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Here’s a list of the key energy and environment bills:
Sunset Public Utilities Commission. 81-page bill gives new charter for state electric utility regulators, including a move in 2020 to calculate the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions in certain utility proceedings.
This story was first published by CPR News on May 13, 2019. You can listen to a radio debrief with environmental reporter Grace Hood here.
LOS ANGELES – Car culture is a way of life in Los Angeles. More specifically, gas-powered vehicle culture.
The vast freeway system is teaming with with big, gas-guzzling SUVs and luxury vehicles at all hours of the day and night. There is even a charm to the vintage classics automobile collection that the city collectively owns. There is pride, power and a sense of safety in these giant machines. Cars and the infrastructures they rely upon are a system we depend upon for our livelihood and existence in Los Angeles.
Despite the region’s infamous congestion rankings, vehicle sales have increased and concurrently public transit use has decreased. Despite valiant efforts from the city to encourage and improve public transit, such as the Measure M tax, a recent report by LA TransitCenter and UCLA found that people do not use public transit because it is slow, not safely accessible by walking, is inhospitable, and many of the likely transit users cannot afford to live near the transit station. Overall, people prefer the privacy of their personal cars as a more comfortable and much more practical mode of transportation.
So, if car culture is not going anywhere, is it possible for Los Angeles to be part of a green transition and curb our dependence on fossil fuels?
Buying an electric vehicle may seem like old news — and California is leading the way with electric vehicle ownership — yet electric is not projected to surpass the number of gas-powered vehicles on the road until 2050.
“Electric vehicles make sense from a financial standpoint, particularly in places like Los Angeles where car culture is so prevalent,” says Ben Holland, Senior Associate in Mobility Transformation at Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on transitioning from fossil fuel to renewable energy. “The more you drive, the more it makes sense to go electric, because the cost of electricity is so much lower than gasoline,” Holland says. “Long distance commuters can quickly pay off the premium they paid for an electric car.”
The two main hindrances keeping consumers from buying an electric vehicle are the lack of charging stations and the initial cost. According to Chargehub, there are less than 2000 charging stations in the city of Los Angeles, and only 7% of those are fast chargers. This challenge is currently being tackled by the city’s promise of adding 250,000 more charging units by 2025. The other challenges are more difficult.
Electric vehicle prices range anywhere between $22,000 and $72,000 before rebates and there are few subsidies or initiatives to make them attainable for middle and low-income individuals. “The problem is this is a luxury good, and in a lot of ways even a car itself is the ultimate luxury good,” says Ryan Popples, CEO of Proterra, America’s largest electric bus manufacturing company. “How are we going to get electric vehicle technology into everyone’s hands faster than just providing them with new cars? Transit.”
In a city with a declining public transit ridership, Popples says a transition to electric public transit should address the public’s concerns about the existing bus fleet. “[Buses are] loud, they’re dirty, they’re really heavy, incredibly inefficient and highly unreliable,” Popples says. With a goal of making electric buses 10 times more efficient than natural gas buses, Proterra’s buses are designed to be the exact opposite: quiet, clean, light, reliable and very efficient, he describes.
What Los Angeles needs more than cleaner buses to become a cleaner, more sustainable city, however, is to break out of a culture that depends strictly on single-user vehicles. “We need to start thinking about prioritizing the movement of people, not the movement of cars. That’s where transit comes in. If we can reverse auto-centric, single-occupant road design and maximize the movement of people, then transit will be a clear winner,” Holland says. “Buses, just like long distance commuters, travel many miles a day, so it’s a win-win from a climate perspective.”
Shifting a collective mentality by making transport more efficient as well as zero-emission could help change behavior and also substantially reduce the city’s fossil fuel consumption. Updating infrastructure with a fast-track lane for zippy electric buses and running them on a more frequent schedule would cut the transportation time for buses and put them back on the map as a viable transportation option.
Last year the California Air Resources Board voted on a proposal for Innovative Clean Transit Regulation to replace all public transit agencies with zero-emission buses by 2040. The proposal’s most recent Notice of Decision from December 2018 states: “The ICT regulation requires California transit agencies to gradually transition their buses to zero-emission technologies… and to implement plans that are best suited for their own situations.” There is no deadline for this transition.
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LOS ANGELES – One hundred and forty-three years after the first gusher spewed forth in California, it still comes as a surprise to people that the state produces as much oil as Alaska — and in some years even more. Oil production in California has been hidden on high school campuses, tucked in behind housing developments, surrounded by almond orchards. It pushes up against neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where heat, time and tectonic forces turned the remains of Miocene marine life into vast reserves of oil. It occupies the flatlands of the Central Valley, where in some places pumpjacks spread out for as far as the eye can see.
California oil has lifted people out of poverty and helped the nation win wars; it has built a $14 billion economy in the Central Valley that directly or indirectly provides more than 60,000 jobs. Though it accounts for only 3% of the state’s economy, it has defined California’s culture perhaps more than has any other industry. The Golden State’s true gold came not in the form of yellow rock, but from the pale-greenish shale and drab gray sandstone that oozed the liquid hydrocarbon we call petroleum.
But now, in the spring of 2019, the future of California’s oil industry hangs in the balance — and not only because the public has become increasingly aware of petroleum’s role in altering the climate. The people who live in communities on the frontlines of oil production have also come to understand how the process of extracting fossil fuels from the ground endangers their health. Studies have linked living in close proximity to oil production to premature birth and low-birth weight babies, respiratory illness and even, in some cases, cancer.
“The report is a stark reminder of the dangers of oil and gas,” says Hollin Kretzmann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It piles on top of existing studies that show oil and gas as the cause of pollution as a risk to human health.”
Fueling Change: Two Neighboring Towns Pit the Legacy of Oil Against a Renewable Future
And California oil production is uniquely treacherous. “People tend to think all oils are the same, but they’re not,” says Deborah Gordon, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and a noted expert in the climate burden of global petroleum production. Oil in the San Joaquin Valley typically has a higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratio than does oil from, for instance, North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. It requires more energy to refine into gasoline, and emits more pollutants in the process. It also lies in deep folds and comes out thick and viscous, like peanut butter, Gordon says. “It needs what’s known as ‘enhanced recovery techniques,’ and it always has.”
Enhanced techniques can mean hydraulic fracturing — cracking apart source rock with a high-pressure slurry of sand and chemicals. It can also involve flooding stubborn wells with water or steam to liquify the oil and coax it to the surface. (Drillers use similar techniques to recover the last dregs of crude in aging fields, of which California has many.)
Enhanced recovery intensifies the climate impact of California’s oil. Steam, in particular, has to be heated, usually with natural gas. Often the amount of energy it takes to extract a barrel of oil exceeds the amount of energy contained in the oil. According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Oil-Climate Index, which Gordon helped develop, a barrel of oil from California’s Midway-Sunset field is second only to a barrel of dense bitumen from Canada’s Athabascan oil sands when it comes to its greenhouse-gas load. Enhanced techniques can also pollute local water supplies, as can conventional oil production, which yields briny wastewater, known as “produced water,” along with the oil. Produced water is sometimes disposed of in ponds, other times in injection wells designed for that purpose. Neither is completely failsafe.
“Past civilizations have ended because they salted up their soil,” warns Tom Frantz, an almond farmer and environmental activist who lives in the Kern County city of Shafter. Polluting water used for drinking and irrigation “doesn’t seem logical if you’re thinking seven generations down the road.”
Like a lot of California climate activists, Frantz would like to see the oil industry shut down — not right away and all at once, but over time. He’d like to see drillers prove they won’t put more energy into extracting oil than the oil itself will yield, as is often the case with steam injection and hydraulic fracturing. State regulators could decide whether to grant new permits based on “energy computations,” he says. “If the ratio of energy in to energy out is too high, they’d say ‘no.’”
The California oil industry will not easily concede to such demands. The industry’s main lobbying group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spent nearly $16 million persuading legislators to vote their way in the 2017 to 2018 legislative session. Chevron invested another $14 million. No other industry’s lobbying expenditures even came close.
Defenders of California’s oil industry are quick to point out that even if you closed down California production tomorrow, you’d make only a negligible dent in the global atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration. “We shouldn’t penalize local producers for issues that might be well beyond our control,” says Mike Umbro, an oil producer in Kern County’s North Belridge field who also consults with other producers about environmental regulation. California only produces one-third of the oil it consumes, Umbro notes. And “the alternative to California crude is more oil from Saudi Arabia. “Those foreign producers have far less regulation to deal with and far fewer environmental safeguards.”
Even Gordon points out that, for all the miles Californians drive, oil doesn’t just get burned in gas tanks. “Your drugs, your chemicals, your plastic; every bit of goods that gets shipped to California from across the ocean” — all consume oil in multiple ways.
Kretzmann counters that California can reduce demand along with supply, for instance by encouraging more electric cars powered by an ever-cleaner grid. Nor is it accurate, he says, to address climate concern as apart from more acute and immediate local impacts. “You can care about the particulate matter that’s getting into to your kids’ lungs at the same time that you can care about the carbon dioxide that’s heating up our planet. It’s not an either-or.”
Arvin is downwind of nearly every source of pollution Kern County has to offer, including two freeways heavy with truck traffic, the dust industrial agriculture kicks up and the airborne contaminants that drift in from all phases of oil production — many of them, such as benzene and toluene, known carcinogens. A 300-foot setback may not make much difference to local air quality. But for a small farm town to go up against the well-funded oil lobby and win “is a remarkable achievement,” Kretzmann says, and bodes well for future legislation. Right now, a bill is pending in the California Senate would establish a 2,500-foot buffer zone for oil and gas facilities statewide, a number consistent with scientific recommendations for protecting public health.
Not everyone on the oil side is opposed. “People living in city environments have every right to push for the highest environmental standards,” including setbacks, Umbro says. But Aguirre, who serves on two state independent review panels monitoring industrial pollution, expects a tough fight.
“It’s going to be — not even David and Goliath. It’s going to be David against some intergalactic superpower.” But he has faith that public health will ultimately prevail. “We’re not fighting money with money,” he says. “We’re fighting money with logic and science.”
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GREELEY, Colo. – After years of tension over expanded oil and gas drilling, including a deadly explosion that galvanized critics, Colorado is moving to tighten regulations on the booming industry. In a sweeping overhaul the governor signed into law in mid-April, regulators will now have to consider public health, safety and the environment in decisions about permitting and local land use.
The state must still hammer out the details of how to implement the new law over the next year. But the impending changes are already fueling hope for some, and fear for others.
“Oil and Gas Leaves, We’re Gone”
“We just had our largest order from an oil and gas worker,” says Matt Smith, owner of Daddy’s Goodness BBQ outside Greeley, as the lunch-hour rush crowded around the window of his bright red food truck.
Smith changed careers to start the business two years ago. “Oil and gas leaves, we’re gone,” he says.
Greeley is the epicenter of Colorado’s oil and gas development. Weld County is where 90 percent of Colorado’s oil is pumped, and the region hosts oil companies, secondary companies that truck water and supplies to well pads, and companies like Smith’s that depend on business from the oil fields. Many who live in Greeley oppose the changes.
“There’s a lot of anger, but I think beneath that anger is a lot of fear,” says Barbara Kirkmeyer, Weld County commissioner. “A lot of people are scared of what can happen here.”
The new law would give cities and counties more control over where oil wells go. It would also shift the state’s mandate from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it, with a focus on the environment and people’s safety. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will get new members with environmental and public health expertise.
The legislation also launches rule-makings in a half dozen areas, including flowlines, and limiting potent methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.
Weld County officials worry those new rules could slow the approval of new drilling permits and cut off the county’s cash flow. In 2018, oil and gas production contributed $490 million in tax revenue, about 60 percent of overall tax dollars for Weld.
“How long is it going to take to make sure that we can start approving permits again so we can get the revenue we’re expecting?” said Weld County Assessor Brenda Dones.
Dones is worried about the current — and growing — backlog of more than 6,000 drilling permits. Reforms at the state level could cause production, and resulting tax revenues, to slip.
In a recent interview with Colorado Matters, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Jeff Robbins said the agency is already aware of that issue and will continue to work on backlogged permits.
“We are taking some efforts immediately to address the concern of the backlog and how we can make the commission more productive,” he said. “We are continuing to process oil and gas locations [and] well sites at the commission at the same time we’re working hard to bring these new rules into being.”
Still, companies could see new hurdles, including rising costs for permit applications. But Robbins said any oil permit fee hikes won’t happen until the new rules are in place and that will take months.
More Local Control Over Where Drilling Can Happen
Perhaps the biggest shift will be giving local communities more control in regulating oil and gas development. South of Greeley, residents of Erie have been pushing for that as they’ve watched multiple drilling projects come through their neighborhoods.
“The first time when they were close to us and drilling you could actually feel the vibration in our house,” says Robin Goldsmith, as she loads her aging terrier into her SUV.
That first well pad was about 1,000 feet away. That’s more than double the distance from homes that the state requires, so there wasn’t much she could do to stop it.
“Hopefully [the new law] will make a difference, because in this particular area — in Erie, in Broomfield — there is a ton of activity going on,” she says.
The push for more restrictions gained traction two years ago. That’s when two people died after a home explosion not far away from Erie, in Firestone. An underground line from a well had leaked gas.
Goldsmith does not share concerns that the new law will prompt an economic slowdown for the industry. “That’s the oil and gas companies making sure that their investments are protected, as opposed to the good of the people,” she says.
Legal Pressures and What Comes Next
Ultimately it will be up to towns, cities and counties to decide if they want to tackle new rules on oil and gas development. In Erie, town trustee Christiaan van Woudenberg ran for office on an anti-fracking platform, and plans to start the process soon. But he says it will be tricky.
He worries about a last minute change to the legislation favored by industry. It restricts communities to doing only what’s “necessary and reasonable” to protect health and safety.
“So lawyers will decide what that means,” says van Woudenberg. “And the problem is that these oil and gas companies have access to resources magnitudes of orders beyond a town council like Erie.”
Some worry that imbalance could prevent communities from tackling rule-making altogether. Anne Lee Foster, of the environmental group Colorado Rising, says local officials may be deterred “for fear of being litigated and not having the resources to properly defend their communities.”
The group says it will watch closely to see how the new law plays out. If community controls are stymied by industry in the courts, Foster says, Colorado Rising will float a statewide ballot issue in 2020, trying yet again to get even more local control.
But first, opponents of the latest restrictions on oil and gas development may have their shot at a re-do. They’re already campaigning for a ballot measure to repeal the law.
GREELEY, Colo. – A bill making its way through the state legislature is challenging several long-standing practices within Colorado’s oil and gas industry, including “forced” or “statutory” pooling.
That’s when companies can drill in a certain area without consent from all associated mineral right owners. The practice has been around for decades, but is facing fresh criticism as Colorado’s population balloons and oil and gas development creeps closer to neighborhoods north of Denver.
Here’s the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s definition:
Pooling is the joining together of various mineral interests into one large “drilling and spacing unit” in order to drill a single well to drain a large area of oil and gas, with each person who owns a mineral interest in the unit receiving a share of the proceeds.
Simply put, Senate Bill 181 proposes raising the threshold a company needs before it can pool an entire group of mineral owners. The bill would require at least 50 percent of owners within a “drilling unit” to lease their rights in order do that.
Right now, that number is far less — just one willing mineral owner is needed to start the pooling process.
SB 181 also proposes raising a non-consenting owner’s initial royalty rate from 12.5 percent to 15 percent.
Homeowners are split on the issue. Some don’t mind leasing their mineral rights.
Others, like Lizzie Lario, a health coach and Broomfield resident, say mineral right owners don’t have enough say in the process.
“I would like the state and the COGCC to understand what an antiquated, old statute forced pooling is and how it needs to be brought up to speed and brought into balance,” Lario said.
She, along with other residents in the Wildgrass neighborhood, have been trying since 2016 to stop the development of dozens of wells nearby.
Another hearing is tentatively scheduled for late March.
Colorado adopted its current pooling laws more than 50 years ago. The statute was written in a way to provide “controlled” and “far less disruptive” drilling, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Association.
The term “forced” is often used by critics of the practice. The COGCC and oil and gas industry representatives often refer to it as “statutory” pooling, or simply “pooling” to avoid the negative connotation.
With more people moving to Greeley, Evans, Windsor and northern Adams County in recent years, the practice is becoming increasingly common, said Matt Sura, an oil and gas attorney in Longmont.
“There is such a density of residential housing units there and many of those folks do own their mineral rights,” he said. “I’m seeing hundreds of people that are receiving these force-pooling letters — hundreds in each one of those neighborhoods, in each one of those cities.”
The contents of pooling applications aren’t public record, he added, which also makes it difficult to quantify the scope of the practice.
“A lot of these people are receiving notices from the oil and gas industry, saying that they’re going to be taking their mineral rights from them — taking a property right from them so the oil and gas industry can profit from it,” he said. “And that just strikes people as unfair.”
Colorado lawmakers passed several new rules around pooling last year. They require companies to send informational materials to mineral owners and give them longer time windows to make decisions.
Scott Prestige, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said pooling is fundamental to the industry’s development, adding that SB 181’s proposed changes could be devastating.
“If you don’t have pooling, in some cases and in some ways, there’s a threat that it could shut down development in that area,” he said. “Because it’s a necessary piece of the puzzle in order to have effective oil and gas development.”
Prestige said it also makes drilling more economical, because it lets companies build fewer surface wells — and that frees up money.
“You’re able to build pipeline infrastructure that reduces truck traffic,” he said. “You’re able to invest in different lighting, noise and odor mitigations all because of those economies of scale, it helps create an opportunity for using the technologies that exist in today’s oil and gas industry.”
DENVER – Colorado oil and gas companies landed a significant victory election night as voters rejected sweeping restrictions on the booming industry.
Proposition 112 would have required any new oil and gas development that’s not on federal land to be set back at least 2,500 feet — almost half a mile — from homes and such “vulnerable areas” as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The current limit is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings.
Although natural gas production has been stable over the past decade, oil production in Colorado has doubled in the past five years – the bulk of it driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics of the well-stimulation technique say it poses dangers to public health.
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said workers got involved because their livelihoods were at stake.
“What’s been amazing to me is seeing the people in this industry step forward. People who don’t like politics and don’t want to be involved in politics, but they understand you don’t get to choose your moment,” Haley said.
Oil and gas companies, including Anadarko and Noble Energy, poured millions into the political interest group Protect Colorado. Through mailers, door-to-door visits and TV ads the group trumpeted the industry’s economic success, and raised concerns about what would be lost if companies faced new restrictions.
The opponents said the measure would have banned new oil and gas activity on most non-federal land in Colorado and cost the state jobs. The industry generated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017,they said, and supported many other industries and jobs. State and local governments would also receive less in tax revenue if the measure were to pass, they argued.
Supporters of the measure said it would have reduced health and nuisance impacts — headaches, nausea, traffic and dust, for example — associated with drilling sites. They say it would have given property owners greater certainty about the location of new oil and gas sites close to their property.
Fracking opponents are running out of avenues to challenge drilling in Colorado. In 2012 and 2013, Longmont and Fort Collins imposed short- and long-term bans on oil and gas development, but the Colorado Supreme Court rendered those efforts illegal. Efforts to impose greater setbacks through the Legislature have failed.
One of the few remaining challenges lies in another legal challenge before the same court: Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That case challenges the commission, which is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, to prioritize health and safety over resource development. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the next year.
Oil production has doubled in the state since 2013, and as of 2017, the state had 54,000 producing wells. Natural gas production has been stable for the past decade. But an increase in population along the northern Front Range means more people now are living near oil and gas facilities.
In two western states, the November election will give voters a chance to vote on oil and fracking and renewable energy. The initiatives in Colorado and Arizona have been contentious already and millions have been spent.
Colorado voters could see two competing oil and gas ballot measures in November.
On one side, environmental group Colorado Rising, seeks to require a 2,500-foot setback between oil wells and any occupied structure, including gathering points like playgrounds and waterways like rivers. These setbacks have been an issue for years, and come as more oil drilling and fracking happens close to cities. (In Culver City, California, for example. PBS SoCal’s David Nazar has reported on the conflict of such exploration in that city in LA County.)
On the other side is the Colorado Farm Bureau, which wants property owners to be compensated if their water, mineral or property is taken or devalued.
Protesting Signature Efforts: Another Front In Oil And Gas Ballot Battle
“The only thing that would be affected by this are the most egregious acts of government,” said Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Director Chad Vorthmann. “Where they specifically targeted one individual one producer or one type of industry and said we’re going to take your property. Or we’re going to devalue it.”
The Colorado Farm Bureau has already delivered 209,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State, which it said is a new record. Protect Colorado, which is funded heavily by oil and gas interests, pumped millions into the signature gathering effort.
The Farm Bureau was required to gather signatures from all 34 Colorado state senate districts for its constitutional amendment. The Secretary of State’s office has until September 5 to verify the signatures.
Meanwhile, Colorado Rising turned in more than 170,000 signatures on deadline day, Aug. 6, and is taking a different tack. It’s attempting to get a statutory amendment passed by voters.
“There are so many reasons we need to protect the health and safety of Coloradans,” said Suzanne Spiegel with Colorado Rising. “Right now the state isn’t doing that. People are getting sick, there are explosions that are killing people, our water is being contaminated. And it’s on us to step up and protect our communities protect our neighborhoods.”
This will be the second time that setback proponents have sought to put a measure in front of voters. A third attempt in 2014 resulted in a brokered compromise between Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The compromise created an oil and gas task force which made several recommendations regarding the location of large oil and gas facilities, and gave local governments more say in how oil and gas is developed. Some suggestions were adopted by state regulators.
According to a state of Colorado analysis, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve Initiative 97.
According to a state analysis of Initiative 97, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve it.
In Weld County, where the majority of oil and gas is developed, nearly 80 percent of land would be off limits.
Ultimately, former Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission head Dave Neslin said lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages could be in play..
“I think it will give rise to takings claims against the state on the part of the mineral owners in Colorado,” said Neslin, an attorney with Davis, Graham & Stubbs. “I think it would be a billion dollar mistake.”
In Arizona, Cronkite News and KJZZ have reported on a very heated initiative campaign that would change the state constitution to set new goals for renewable energy use. One proposal, sponsored by Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona would require that 50 percent of Arizona’s electrical energy must come from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, by 2030.
Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona is primarily funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has become a target in the campaign. A political action committee, Reliable Energy Policy, has targeted Steyer.
The Arizona Public Service Electric Company (APS) opposes the renewable energy referendum and argues that the passage of the proposal could lead to the shut down of the Palo Verde Nuclear plant, the largest power producer in the country. It serves 4 million people across the Southwest.
The widespread availability of wind and solar power could impact the market for nuclear power, argue opponents of the referendum.
They say that nuclear power would be hit hardest among sources of power in Arizona, because Palo Verde – the nation’s largest power producer – could not operate at levels low enough to satisfy the initiative’s requirements.
Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Initiative, took issue with APS’ assertion that the requirements of the initiative would force them to close the plant. He was skeptical of the argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant.
Arizona is already one of the top producers of renewable energy.
Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has turned in nearly half a million signatures, but opponents of the ballot measure have filed a lawsuit, claiming that more than 200,000 of the signatures are invalid because they belong to people who are not registered to vote in Arizona, while others lack key information like first and last names.
Cronkite News’ Jéssica Alvarado Gámez and KJZZ’s Will Stone contributed reporting for this article.