Mountain States

Anti-Fracking Activists Launch Misleading Map Quest to Lobby Colorado Task Force

Greeley 2013

The Center for Western Priorities mapping project paints a wildly inaccurate picture of oil and gas development in which energy production leaves almost no room for anything else.

A series of maps designed to scare the public about the pace of energy development in Colorado exaggerates the size of an average oil and gas well by as many as 45 times.

The maps were created by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP), a program of the $52 million New Venture Fund in Washington, D.C. They were released just before a highly anticipated Front Range meeting of the Colorado oil and gas task force last month. The CWP announces, “[W]e mapped the oil and gas wells drilled in Colorado between 1990 and 2013,” and describes the development as “a sea of red moving across the state and into Colorado’s communities.”

Some in the news media were enthralled. The Colorado Springs Independent gushed: “[T]hese things are awesome … [t]he growth is truly astonishing.” NPR affiliate KUNC headlined: “Watch Greeley Get Surrounded By 15,000 Oil Wells in 13 Years.” Denver Post energy reporter Mark Jaffe tweeted: “Cool time-series maps show how oil and gas drilling accelerated in Colorado.”

The CWP paints a picture of oil and gas development taking up huge swaths of land and leaving little room for anything else. But the CWP maps dramatically overstate the size and scope of oil and gas operations in Colorado. The deception can easily be overlooked, because the maps do not include a scale – a curious and convenient omission by the CWP. But by using other landmarks as a guide, it’s possible to estimate how much land each red dot represents on the map.

That’s a big red circle

When you do the math, those red dots each represent roughly 50 acres. By that measure, one oil and gas well occupies the same area as 38 football fields – an intriguing concept that raised some eyebrows for those of us who have set foot on a well site before.

To confirm our suspicions, Energy In Depth reviewed more than 2,200 approved location assessment permits in Weld County, home to almost half the state’s oil and gas wells, between December 2011 and December 2014. On average, each oil and gas well occupied 1.47 acres – or 45 times less land than the CWP’s maps would have you believe.

The CWP’s Twitter feed clearly shows the group trying to influence Colorado’s oil and gas task force ahead of a highly anticipated Front Range meeting in Loveland, Colo.

Even though the CWP says it mapped wells, not well pads, let’s be charitable for a moment and assume the group really intended for each 50-acre red dot to signify a single site with multiple wells. The 2011-2014 data from Weld County indicates that an average well site takes up 6.6 acres. By that measure, the CWP maps still exaggerate the footprint of oil and gas development by 7.6 times.

Any way you slice it, it’s clear the CWP wants the public to believe that oil and gas development is crowding out all other land-intensive industries, like agriculture. And it’s not the first time we’ve heard wildly inaccurate assertions about the amount of land used for energy development. But Weld County, one of the regions depicted on the CWP maps, tells a very different story.

Local officials proudly report that Weld is “the richest agricultural county in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains” with an “agricultural empire of 2.5 million acres.” From 1997 to 2012, the county’s crop sales grew 76 percent, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If the CWP’s maps were an accurate portrayal of the land used by oil and gas development, the continued growth of agriculture in Weld County simply would not be possible. At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine another industry that requires wide open spaces quite so much as agriculture.

Making attack ads from the “calm center”

At this point, you may be wondering why CWP would create a set of such misleading maps. After all, CWP claims it was founded to “provide an honest source of information,” to be the “calm center where integrity guides a policy solution that is on the terms of our neighborhoods and communities.” The group’s first executive director – Washington, D.C.-based political operative Trevor Kincaid – has even implored: “If we’re going to have an honest debate about fracking, then all sides have to admit the facts.” Of course, the press release announcing the creation of CWP left out the fact that Kincaid was running the show from Washington, even while professing that the group was “[b]ased in Denver.”

Kincaid, who later left CWP to join the Obama White House’s communications team, even saw fit to lecture others about honesty. He railed against “inaccuracies and misleading claims” supposedly made about fracking: “Smart decisions can’t be made if the facts about the process and impacts [are] ignored or obscured.”

Pot, kettle, black. The hypocrisy is mesmerizing.

Despite its Western moniker, the CWP is a program of the New Venture Fund (NVF), based in Washington, D.C. According to the Washington Examiner, CWP is a “phantom engagement center” responsible for, among other things, running “anti-fracking attack ads” in Northern Colorado last year. CWP is one of many campaigns supported by the NVF, whose tax filings also show donations to anti-energy groups such as Earthworks, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Environment Colorado, the Wilderness Society and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen.

Condescending views from Dupont Circle

To be sure, Weld County is home to lots of energy development. But it is disingenuous – and wrong – to portray that development as an encroachment upon other land uses, and even something to be embarrassed by. In fact, some residents take great pride in the way Weld is harnessing the resources it has been blessed with. But, unsurprisingly, that nuance is evidently lost on CWP and its funders in their offices just south of Dupont Circle in the nation’s capital. As Weld County Commission Chair Barbara Kirkmeyer writes in The Denver Post:

“Weld County is extremely thrilled about the oil and gas industry’s investment in the state and, specifically, in our county…The buried treasure under Weld County’s soil is a strong boost for the state’s economy and is keeping Colorado competitive.”

So, too, says Energy Proud, a Weld County grassroots group that supports local energy development:

“Energy development has enriched Weld County, helping Weld County to be one of the only counties in the state to be debt free.”

In fact, Energy Proud member Eric Berglund invites us to bear witness to Weld County’s extraordinary success:

“Come to Weld County, the heart of Colorado’s energy boom, and go on a rig tour, visit our bustling restaurants and stores and see how energy companies and Coloradans can co-exist in order to develop our natural resources, power our nation and become energy independent. If you come to Weld County with an open mind, you will find many success stories – stories of workers with diverse backgrounds getting good-paying jobs to provide for their families and build their American dream.”

Apparently, it’s too much to ask organizations like Center for Western Priorities to take the time and effort to explore and understand how communities truly feel about oil and gas development. But misrepresenting data as part of a fear-mongering campaign and perpetuating a condescending East Coast view of one of Colorado’s most important industries – well, that’s the least we can expect.

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