Are Anti-Industry Activists Playing Politics with Colorado’s Tragic Floods?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Check out the handiwork of East Boulder County United (EBCU), an activist group funded by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch:
Lafayette is a city in Boulder County, one of the hardest hit areas of Colorado after torrential rain triggered a 500-year flood. Eight people were killed. Homes, businesses, farms, roads, bridges and other essential infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed. The scale of the disaster has been called “biblical.” This is no time for politics – unless you’re running a campaign to ban oil and gas development in Lafayette and across the state of Colorado.
When floodwaters first hit, when people were struggling to protect their homes or fleeing for their lives, EBCU was aggressively lobbying “Denver TV stations, other media, and state and local politicians” with the help of anti-industry activists in Texas. Reporters and public officials who were rightly focused on search and rescue efforts were falsely accused of imposing a “media blackout”:
“It’s like the media and politicians have been TOLD not to say anything about it. There has been no mention of the gas wells on the Denver newscasts either last night or this evening although all stations have had extensive and extended flood coverage.”
At the same time, EBCU was helping Earth First! – a self-described “ecological resistance” group based in Florida – produce a propaganda video, complete with an ominous voiceover and soundtrack. From the very first frame, the video strikes an alarmist tone, claiming “devastating floods hit an area with over 20,000 fracked wells” – a reference to the number of oil and gas wells in Weld County. But as terrible as the floods have been, they did not cover all 4,000 square miles of Weld County, so the number of wells shut-in because of the rising waters was roughly 2,000. In other words, Earth First! overstated by a factor of 10 the number of wells potentially impacted by the flooding.
The video also repeated the false “media blackout” claim, even as EBCU’s Cliff Willmeng was using media coverage of flooded well sites to promote his mother’s campaign for local elected office. During the so-called media blackout, Willmeng was even giving interviews to reporters, making speculative claims about the “exposure the human population is going to have to suffer through” and a “danger of toxicology in Weld County … related to the oil and gas industry.”
Lost in the coverage, however, is that EBCU and other anti-industry activists were making the same kinds of claims about the oil and gas industry long before the floodwaters arrived, because completely banning oil and natural gas development is the central plank of their campaign platform.
But EBCU has been far from alone in using a natural disaster to push for a long-standing political goal. Anti-industry activists have started a petition drive, calling on Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to “deem all oil and gas activities as an immediate hazard” which must be “prohibited statewide.” But the activists have demanded a statewide ban many, many times before (for example, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and they have even petitioned unsuccessfully to recall the governor.
Even Anthony Ingraffea – the activist professor from New York’s Cornell University who helped C-list celebrities Mark Ruffalo, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and Gasland director Josh Fox launch an anti-industry group called Artists Against Fracking – was unable to resist the temptation to use a natural disaster to generate some publicity for his cause. While admitting he had no real knowledge of the situation, he speculated to Reuters: “We could have a long term, hazardous waste cleanup problem.”
But once more, an anti-industry activist is simply exploiting the tragic events of the day to campaign for a long-held political belief. For example, more than a year ago, Ingraffea signed a “pledge of resistance” against oil and gas development in Colorado. The pledge calls hydraulic fracturing – which is a brief but essential process for developing oil and gas in Colorado – an “accident prone” and “inherently dangerous” technology that cannot be safely regulated by “any government agency or scientific body.”
So, long before the flood, Ingraffea was campaigning against the oil and gas industry, and against the judgment of scientists, engineers, state regulators, federal regulators and senior members of the Obama administration, who have concluded many times that hydraulic fracturing is fundamentally safe. He merely exploited the Colorado flood to generate some press attention for himself and a political campaign he actively supports.
As we have detailed in an earlier blog, current assessments from the State of Colorado suggest the actual environmental impacts from damaged oil and gas infrastructure are nothing close to what the activists wanted the news media, state and local officials and the general public to believe. While the full picture won’t be known until the floodwaters fully recede, state officials have noted there are “many other sources of contamination” to be concerned about, including “very large volumes (millions of gallons) of raw, municipal sewage and other hazards associated with households, agriculture, business and industry.” In fact, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:
“There have been millions of gallons of raw sewage released to the waters, and that’s a greater focus as far as public health is concerned.”
And when the Greeley Tribune of Weld County – one of the hardest hit areas in the flood zone, with more oil and gas wells than any other county in the state – consulted with state health officials, local health officials and other experts, here’s what the newspaper found:
“Floodwaters quickly became a toxic soup of wastewater, raw sewage, industrial and household chemicals, agricultural waste and chemicals rushing downstream. Oil and gas releases, officials said, have been so small, it’s almost immaterial.”
Why does this matter? Because in their zeal to generate negative headlines for the oil and gas industry, and boost their campaign to ban domestic energy production, the activists who claimed to be working in the name of public health ignored, minimized and distracted the public and the news media from much more likely – and urgent – threats to public health. And not for nothing, at Energy In Depth, we’ve seen precisely the same tactics used before by activists in the Eastern states after flood-related disasters.
Instead of waiting for the extent of the damage to become clear, the activists engaged in reckless speculation in the middle of an unfolding natural disaster. Even worse, they accused anyone who questioned their aggressive PR campaign – including the news media – of engaging in a cover up.
As Energy In Depth has noted before, the men, women and families of Colorado’s oil and gas industry take the tragedy and devastation from the recent floods very seriously. Once the environmental impacts from damaged oil and gas facilities are fully assessed, the industry will take responsibility for them, because we strive to be good neighbors, and because the law requires it.
We are held accountable for what we say and do, and we welcome that accountability. Perhaps one day, we can hope the activists will also be held accountable for the things they say and do.