Point of No Return: Will They Drill for Oil in Your Neighborhood?

The Colorado Springs City Council is scheduled to make the most important vote in city history on December 11. It could send us down a tragic path, from which there may be no return.

Banning-Lewis Ranch is a huge swath of land inside the city of Colorado Springs – about 22,000 acres that – before the housing bubble burst – were slated to become the site of 75,000 new dwellings and home to the next 180,000 residents of our city. Last year an energy company purchased most of Banning-Lewis Ranch out of bankruptcy - not to expand our city with more houses and strip malls, but to drill for oil and gas. This area has only now become ripe for drilling because of recently developed directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology. This “fracking” is necessary to release oil and gas from the rock formations beneath us.

Many citizens have been concerned and outspoken about the enormous quantities of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process. A single well typically requires several million gallons of water to frack. Our water resource in the arid West is oversubscribed and too precious to toxify and remove from the hydrologic cycle. Citizens are also concerned about the hazardous, poisonous and even carcinogenic nature of the chemicals mixed with the water and then injected underground during fracking. Drilling and fracking also release toxins into the air.

Many have been unaware of these plans. Of those who have known, many have been quiet. Some assume elected officials will look after our best interests without needing our input. That appears to be a false assumption. Others feel the drilling will be “way out east, far away from us, a good location for heavy industry like oil and gas exploration and production.” There are just two problems with that perspective:

1) The impacts will not be confined to a limited area.

2) The drilling itself is not necessarily limited to the undeveloped prairie of Banning-Lewis.

Poisonous chemicals are turning up in both the air and the groundwater near drilling and fracking sites around the world. Due to underfunded and inadequate oversight, the hard evidence has been accumulating slowly and is often refuted by the industry. Due to wishful thinking, industry sound bites have carried more weight than warranted. The mounting evidence is, however, becoming harder to ignore.

While air and water quality problems will be worse in close proximity to drilling, they won’t always be confined to that area. What is most alarming, however, is that there is no guarantee the drilling won’t eventually happen in your own neighborhood. The ordinance amendment up for a city council vote December 11 will allow drilling in residentially zoned parts of the city, where drilling is currently prohibited.

When you think about it, the process seems a poor choice anywhere. There is no shortage of stories about disease outbreaks, cattle dying, people falling ill and well-water contamination occurring in rural areas shortly after drilling has begun. The risks associated with the chemicals used in the fracking process include neurological disorders, cancer, birth defects and infertility.

Now, imagine how you’ll feel when the drilling crew starts setting up at the end of your cul de sac. Few of us own the mineral rights beneath our own property. Very little protects us from these toxins being pumped into the ground or released into the air in our own neighborhoods. The only thing that today prevents this is our city zoning regulations that prevent industrial activity like drilling in areas that are zoned residential. That’s a rule few would question. It makes perfect sense.

That sensible rule, however, is on the chopping block. 6 of our 9 city councilors voted November 27 to do away with it. Council has to vote a second time – December 11 – to make it official. This is probably the most significant and potentially community-killing vote ever to be placed before a Colorado Springs city council.

Why would 6 of our councilors choose to allow drilling in a residential area? In a nutshell, Banning-Lewis Ranch is zoned residential. So even though the land purchased by Ultra Resources is largely vacant, drilling cannot begin unless we change our zoning regulations. Still, that does not seem reason enough for these 6 councilors to put all our residential neighborhoods at risk.

This is where it gets complicated. These councilors are bowing to pressure from the state. Our governor and the state agency tasked with regulating the oil and gas industry want our state to become a domestic energy sacrifice zone. They are advising us we cannot legally prohibit drilling in a residential area. Huh? Really? The final court battle on this subject is yet to be fought. A rising number of cities, states, and even countries, are in fact prohibiting some or all aspects of drilling or fracking.

We have a governor who records commercials for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. We have a regulatory agency with 17 inspectors for 47,000 wells. Do the math. That’s one inspector for 2,765 wells. The number of wells is projected to increase rapidly, and that agency is considering adding 5 inspectors. It is a joke. They admittedly depend on people getting sick and calling them in order to discover violations of safety procedures.

While the state licks its lips over the enticing potential tax revenue from all that drilling, evidence is piling up that the energy companies are not capable of drilling and fracking safely. It’s early enough in the game that the oilmen are able to cast some doubt on the evidence. Many want to believe we can have abundant, cheap gas from these shale formations without killing our kids and poisoning our environment. This debate is currently being played out, largely with deceptive sound bites on one side and a growing body of data on the other.

So here in Colorado Springs, Ultra Resources purchased land on which drilling was (and still is) prohibited. They speculated they would be able to change this. Today, the burden is on them to make that happen. If they can’t get the law changed, they cannot sue our city for taking their property rights – for they knowingly purchased this land on which drilling was prohibited.

Now, I’m no attorney, but it would appear that if these 6 city councilors sell us out on December 11 and vote to allow drilling in residentially zoned parts of the city, Ultra’s legal rights probably change overnight. What if a year from now the evidence is impossible to ignore, and our city council is convinced that fracking is deadly and drilling is killing our air, water, health, tourism, etc.? Can they then prohibit these activities in residential areas (or perhaps everywhere)? It will probably be too late. It may well be that Ultra could then make the case that such a change would constitute a taking of their property rights. We could either be prevented from fixing our regulations or we could be sued for millions of dollars in lost potential oil and gas revenue.

We may well be at a point of no return. It’s likely a yes vote to allow drilling in all areas of our city can never be undone, no matter what we learn over the coming years about the dangers. I think we know enough today. But if these 6 city councilors are waiting for more evidence to pile up before they act to protect and defend our community, it will be too late.

The council meeting begins at 1:00 at our old City Hall, corner of Nevada and Kiowa. If you want to call or write your city councilors, find contact information here.

Dave Gardner
Founder of SaveTheSprings
Director of GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

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Tags: banning-lewis, city, colorado, council, drilling, environment, fracking, fracturing, gas, hydraulic, More…oil, resources, springs, ultra

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Comment by Dave Gardner on December 10, 2012 at 5:31pm

Late breaking news: Council is expected Tuesday to vote to delay the vote on oil and gas regulations until January. That's all we know at the moment, but it's good news.

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