Mountain States

National ‘Ban Fracking’ Group Hits Task Force with Dubious Land Claims

The anti-energy campaign funded by millionaire Congressman Jared Polis is getting help from other “ban fracking” groups to lobby Colorado’s newly formed oil and gas task force. One of those groups is Environment Colorado, which is dusting off an old, discredited report to mislead the task force into endorsing unlawful local energy bans.

Environment Colorado is the local chapter of Environment America, which wants to effectively shut down domestic oil and natural gas production through statewide and national bans on hydraulic fracturing. In fact, the leadership of Environment America says “we’re working to ban fracking wherever we can—from New York to North Carolina to California.” The group’s anti-energy agenda came through loud and clear in a statement released Sept. 25 when the task force held its first public meeting:

“We believe Colorado communities should have the right to say ‘no’ to fracking within their borders.  That will be the real measure of progress.”

To support this view, the statement cited an October 2013 Environment America report called Fracking by the Numbers.  But this report isn’t a credible source. In fact, it makes some highly misleading claims, as Energy In Depth noted almost exactly a year ago. For example, the report claims hydraulic fracturing poses a danger to groundwater, when state and federal regulators have repeatedly concluded it’s safe; and the report claims carbon emissions are rising because of hydraulic fracturing when they are actually falling because of the energy production made possible by this technology.

Cynical flood claims discredited

But the group’s disregard for the facts was best displayed when it used Colorado’s tragic September 2013 floods to promote the report. In a move decried as “sheer cynicism” by the Denver Post, Environment America’s Colorado chapter claimed flood damage to some oil and gas infrastructure in Northern Colorado was “an added exclamation point to the long list of dangers” posed by hydraulic fracturing. The group even suggested spills near the South Platte River in Weld County posed a threat to “[n]early 2 million residents of Denver [who] rely on the South Platte for their drinking water.”

To start with, public safety officials and environmental regulators in Colorado investigated activist claims of a “fracking flood disaster” and concluded they were “unfounded.” But Environment America’s attempt to scare millions of Denver residents into believing their water supply was at risk was specifically debunked by a spokesperson for Denver Water. He reminded the activists that “Denver’s water comes from rivers and streams fed by mountain snowmelt in the headwaters of the South Platte and the Colorado River,” many miles upstream from Weld County and clear on the other side of the Denver metropolitan area. As a result, Denver Water’s customers did not experience “any water service or quality issues” because the flood damage occurred “downstream of our collection system and service area.” In other words, Environment America’s operatives in Colorado actually claimed the South Platte flows towards the mountains, instead of away from them.

Distorted land-use claims

To generate fresh attention for their old report, Environment America’s operatives highlighted another claim from Fracking by the Numbers in last week’s press release on the task force:

“Fracking has damaged Colorado landscapes. Drilling-related construction – including well pads, access roads and pipelines have transformed more than 57,000 acres of Colorado’s land into industrial zones. That’s more than one-third of the land in the state’s park system.”

First of all, Environment America is flat wrong on the size of Colorado’s state parks. Based on the activist group’s math, state parks take up less than 170,000 acres. The real number is more than 220,000 acres, according to Colorado Parks & Wildlife. This means Environment America has shortchanged our state parks by about 50,000 acres – an area twice the size of Broomfield.

The 57,000-acre estimate should also be treated with some skepticism. Besides the group’s overall disregard for facts – such as the direction of the South Platte River and the size of Colorado’s state parks – Environment America may have ignored the vigorous reclamation requirements that apply after a well site is completed. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s permitting database is full of examples of well sites that dramatically shrink in size when all the construction equipment is moved from the site and production begins. For example, this Weld County site disturbed 4.75 acres during construction, but in production its 18 wells occupy just 0.8 acres. And this Moffat County site disturbed 6.3 acres during construction, but the location’s seven wells take up just two acres in the production phase.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the 57,000-acre estimate is accurate. Is that an unacceptably large area?

For perspective, consider that some “ban fracking” activists have conceded this is a relatively tiny amount of land. In fact, while we disagree with Be the Change’s Phil Doe on just about everything, he unwittingly debunked Environment America at last week’s task force meeting. In his comments to the task force, Doe brought up the Northern Colorado cities – Boulder, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Longmont and Broomfield – where national activist groups have run successful “ban fracking” campaigns. Together, those five cities occupy roughly 147 square miles, or about 95,000 acres, and Doe told the task force:

“In terms of land mass, it’s very, very, very small. It’s less than a fraction of one percent of the 104,000 square miles that make up this state.”

To make matters worse, Environment America appears to have cherry-picked state parks as a proxy for public land, and ignored Colorado’s much larger national parks, in order to exaggerate the footprint of oil and gas operations. While Colorado’s state parks take up 220,000 acres, our national parks occupy well over 600,000 acres, according to U.S. Census data. For context, 57,000 acres isn’t even close to 10 percent of the combined area of state and national parks in Colorado.

Defying common sense

But Environment America’s rhetoric on land use is even more misleading when you review just a few examples from other key sectors of the Colorado economy, such as recreation and transportation. Colorado has 306 golf courses which typically use 120 to 200 acres of land, according to the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Based on that data, golf courses take up somewhere between 37,000 and 61,000 acres in Colorado.

Turning to the transportation sector, there are 83 airports in Colorado. You need just six of them – Denver International , Colorado Springs Municipal , Durango-La Plata County, Gunnison-Crested Butte, Grand Junction Regional and Centennial – to fill roughly 50,000 acres. As for roads, there are more than 85,000 miles of federal, state, city and county roads in Colorado. The county roads alone take up more than 147,000 acres if you assume they are all two lanes – or roughly 22 feet – wide. The real surface area is even bigger than that, of course, once you factor in four-lane sections, turning and passing lanes, medians and shoulders.

Therefore, even if Environment America’s 57,000-acre estimate for oil and gas operations is accurate, that’s about the same amount of land used by Colorado golf courses or six of the state’s 86 airports. The estimate is also just a fraction of the land used by county roads in Colorado.

Can anyone seriously argue that Colorado is being overrun with golf courses, airports or county roads? The answer, of course, is “no.” Likewise, the public has enough common sense to reject Environment America’s anti-energy agenda when the facts are presented in their full context, which is why Environment America and other anti-energy groups do everything they can to keep facts and context out of the debate entirely – especially when it comes to the deliberations of the oil and gas task force.

Remember, the Polis-backed campaign’s central claim – “[c]urrent laws allow fracking anytime, anywhere in Colorado” – has been called by the Denver Post “a lie in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to start.” The Congressman’s group, Safe Clean Colorado, is the most visible anti-energy organization lobbying the task force, but it’s far from alone, as Environment America’s involvement makes clear.

As Energy In Depth has noted before, let’s hope the members of the task force are ready, willing and able to sort fact from fiction under some intense political pressure from these anti-energy groups. The livelihoods of tens of thousands of oil and gas families in Colorado, and an industry that generates almost $30 billion in economic activity and $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenues, depend on the debate being grounded in fact.

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