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As coal wanes, conflict grows over natural gas, oil boom in Colorado

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February 4, 2016, 12:37 pm
route fifty gas rigs

Natural gas is rapidly replacing coal as the preferred method of providing electricity.

Coal still accounts for more than a third of all the electricity generated in the United States, but because of the abundance of cheap natural gas being produced in places like Colorado, coal power is now at its lowest level since the federal government first started keeping records in 1949.

According to a new report, coal dropped from 39 percent of the nation’s electricity mix in 2014 to 34 percent in 2015. In Colorado, next to the nation’s number one coal producing state in Wyoming, the dirtiest-burning fossil fuel still accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s electricity.

That number is plummeting, however, as utilities put more and more wind and solar energy on the grid and as the state phases out old coal-burning power plants in favor of new ones powered by natural gas, which burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal and is therefore viewed as more climate-friendly.

However, the natural gas and oil boom in Colorado has led to far more conflicts with residents of heavily drilled areas of the state’s Front Range, where grassroots anti-fracking groups are pushing hard for greater setbacks for drilling operations away from homes, schools and other occupied buildings. Those groups also would like to wrestle away state regulatory control over the oil and gas industry and shift that power to local governments.

A slew of potential ballot initiatives are being considered for the Nov. 8 general election. Here’s an excerpt from a story I wrote this week for Atlantic Media’s Route Fifty website:

Although state officials finalized new rules to give local governments more input on oil and gas drilling in neighborhoods last week, Colorado is gearing up for a major battle at the ballot box in November as grassroots anti-fracking groups look to give towns and counties total control.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Title Board will consider 11 proposed ballot measures aimed at everything from giving local governments greater control over the state-regulated industry to increasing setbacks of rigs away from homes and schools up to three quarters of a mile. Two more proposed initiatives would impose an outright ban on the controversial drilling process of hydraulic fracturing and guarantee Colorado residents the right to a healthy environment.

Proponents of the initiatives, which have been in the works since last fall, say they will narrow the 11 ballot questions down to just one or two next month. All 11 would amend the state’s constitution if passed by voters. If approved by the secretary of state, the proponents—Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development—have until Aug. 8 to gather 98,492 valid signatures of registered voters on each measure in order to make it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“We will not be gathering signatures for all of our issues, probably one or two. The final decision will be made by our board [this] month,” said CREED Executive Director Tricia Olson, who added her group does not yet have any major funders. “CREED was formed by the grassroots and has been funded so far by the grassroots.”

Opponents of the initiatives such as the issues committee Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence say they have yet to decide on countermeasures like the two pro-industry initiatives that were floated but ultimately pulled in 2014 in response to a pair of anti-fracking questions that were backed but later pulled by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder.

“Regarding pro-industry measures, we haven’t made any decisions yet, but are considering all our options,” PCEEEI spokeswoman Karen Crummy said. “These extreme and irresponsible measures would kill jobs, ignore established laws and devastate Colorado’s economy.”

Polis in a statement last week discounted the new state rules, which resulted from a deal he struck with Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 to pull his two ballot questions—one of which mandated a 2,000-foot setback. Hickenlooper set up an oil and gas task force to recommend local-control rules, but after 18 months of deliberation both sides were dissatisfied.

The state maintains primacy in regulating oil and gas drilling, but community activist groups have been pushing hard for greater municipal and county control over where companies can drill in increasingly populated areas around the state.

“Setbacks and giving communities a legitimate say on what kind of industrial activity is appropriate in backyards and schoolyards are reasonable solutions that ought to be considered,” Polis said in a prepared statement.

Current state regulations require drilling operations to be set back at least 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from higher occupancy buildings such as schools and hospitals. On the high end, CREED is proposing a 4,000-foot setback, which is three quarters of a mile, and on the low end 2,500 feet, which is about a half mile.

The newly adopted COGCC local-control rules require notification and consultation with local governments when major drilling operations are proposed in “Urban Mitigation Areas,” but some towns and counties want actual control over whether companies can drill within their boundaries and where that drilling can occur.

To read the rest of the story, go to RouteFifty.com.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environmental, political, entertainment, outdoor and sports writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, LA Weekly, ESPN.com, SKI Magazine, Powder and People Magazine. He also regularly contributes to The Colorado Statesman and Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com.

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