Chapter 5: The Conversation
Graham isn’t the first person to move to Weld County to enjoy the rural atmosphere, only to feel that the oil and gas industry was reducing his quality of life.
Shane Davis moved to the Weld County town of Firestone, Colo., in 2009. Davis, a former Colorado park ranger with a fondness for the outdoors, left the 17 windows on the south side of his home open every night to let in the cool night air.
“But every single night, anywhere from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., this giant wall of chemicals would come in,” Davis said, “and if I couldn’t get all of those windows closed in time, I would have to turn on all the fans in the house or drive somewhere for a few hours just to get the chemicals out.”
Soon Davis began experiencing symptoms similar to Graham’s.
“I had never had any of these problems before, but all of a sudden I started experiencing migraines, a year-long nosebleed, GI problems, headaches, burning eyes, burning throat,” he said. “That’s what alarmed me. I’d wake up at 3am with these insane headaches.”
Davis attributed his symptoms to the cloud of vapors that wafted into his windows. To test the theory, he closed the windows at night for a few nights in a row, and his symptoms faded. He opened the windows at night again, and his symptoms returned.
“There’s no silver bullet on any of these types of things, and we have to weigh our options. We have to think about what we can do responsibly, and meet all of our needs. All forms of energy are going to have some impact, whether it be on the land or other resources. It doesn’t matter what energy resource you’re using—wind, solar, nuclear—there’s going to be some sort of impact.” – Jon Haubert, director of communications for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED)
After that experience, Davis set out on a self-described “crusade” to educate others about the problems he believes are caused by the oil and gas industry’s increasing presence in Weld County and other heavily-drilled areas of Colorado. Armed with an educational background in biology and molecular physics and a passion for data-mining, Davis began pulling information from the COGCC database and publishing it on his blog.
Known as the “Fractivist,” Davis received national attention for using COGCC records to show that 40 percent of all oil spills in Weld County from 2008 to 2012 contaminated groundwater sources, a study that was later duplicated and confirmed by COGCC director Matt Lepore. Davis leads workshops on hydraulic fracturing, environmental issues, data analysis, map making and other methods. Lepore declined to comment on Davis or Graham for this project.
Davis aided voters in Lafayette and Longmont in enacting the cities’ fracking bans—the only such bans in the state—by providing data and other information to residents. The 2012 Longmont ban was met with fierce opposition and a lawsuit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the state. The lawsuit will be decided later this year. Meanwhile, voters passed moratoria on fracking in Fort Collins, Broomfield and Boulder.
Davis predicts that hydraulic fracturing has damaged Weld County’s environment beyond repair.
“I see huge problems in Weld County,” Davis said. “These reclamations that need to happen are going to take millions of dollars in each case to actually clarify water, revegetate the land, decontaminate and replace the soils. This huge agricultural producer is probably going to be reduced to not even being put on the map because the industry is going to devastate the land so badly.”
“It’s going to be a Superfund site,” he said. “Right now, it should be considered a Superfund site. If the industry shut down today, you’re still going to have historic problems going forward. It’s such a detriment—an environmental catastrophe—not only to the land and the water but everyone who’s out there. It’s going to be a wasteland someday, and sadly, the citizens of Colorado are going to have to pay for it.”
Jon Haubert, director of communications at Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), said that activists like Davis are spreading “the absolute wrong information” about the oil and gas industry and that hydraulic fracturing is necessary to meet Colorado’s energy needs. However, he said this “wrong information” is a result of oil and gas companies’ failure to educate the public about the process.
“We have a vacuum of information filled by misinformation,” Haubert said. “We recognize that we have a responsibility to explain what we’re doing and explain what fracking is, to answer the questions people have about these things.”
Started and funded by Noble and Anadarko, CRED describes its mission as one of educating the public on the oil and gas industry, promoting industry-sponsored information about hydraulic fracturing via social media and other online media. In addition to his role at CRED, Haubert is the manager of communications for the oil and gas trade association Western Energy Alliance (WEA).
Haubert believes that activists like Davis have painted a negative and inaccurate picture of the oil and gas industry and hydraulic fracturing.
“There’s no silver bullet on any of these types of things, and we have to weigh our options,” Haubert said. “We have to think about what we can do responsibly, and meet all of our needs. All forms of energy are going to have some impact, whether it be on the land or other resources,” Haubert said. “It doesn’t matter what energy resource you’re using—wind, solar, nuclear—there’s going to be some sort of impact.”
Haubert said the best option for energy development is an “all of the above” approach, incorporating oil, gas, coal, wind, solar and nuclear power.
“Certainly the pendulum could swing the other way—there could be drilling like crazy, there’s no rules, there’s no regulations, people cut corners,” Haubert said. “That’s the extreme we don’t want. The other end is that it’s so tight and so difficult to produce the energy that we need that we have to radically change our lifestyles… and that’s the other extreme, I think. We have to find a balance where we can have the energy we need but do so responsibly, and I think natural gas fits a lot of those qualities.”
“It’s an absolute disservice and a lie to the public that the industry is putting out there telling them that it’s a safe operation, when in fact you can’t make it safe because you’re subject to the natural world. We can’t make it safe, and Weld County is screwed.” – Shane Davis, the “Fractivist”
Davis, on the other hand, believes that all hydraulic fracturing and drilling operations are inherently dangerous and need to stop.
“It’s an absolute disservice and a lie to the public that the industry is putting out there telling them that it’s a safe operation, when in fact you can’t make it safe because you’re subject to the natural world,” Davis said. “We can’t make it safe, and Weld County is screwed.”
Davis believes measures can be taken to hold oil and gas companies accountable for potential environmental and health-related damages in the future.
“What needs to happen is every single operator in Colorado and around the world needs to add a bioinformatic tracer down the wellbores—a benign tracer loaded with information about the operator and the specific wellbore,” he said, “so that any time there is a fluid migration anywhere, that fluid can be traced back to the exact point source of that pollution.”
Meanwhile, Bill Jerke believes that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that Weld County’s oil and gas companies respond appropriately when problems arise.
“The companies are responsive and quick if they think there’s danger of any kind to the public from their wells,” Jerke said.
But Ed Graham believes that Noble Energy and other operators near his home did not listen to his complaints and failed to respect his rights as a homeowner.
“I pay a mortgage on the property, and the purpose of the property is to live on it,” he said. “And I think I should have that right as long as I pay my bills, and I’m not doing anything illegal, and I’m not annoying the neighbors. I’ve been living in harmony, and all of a sudden they come in saying, ‘We don’t care if you want to live there or not.’”
He wonders if the operators near his property are attempting to create an uninhabitable environment that will force him to move, allowing them to condemn the property and drill more wells.
Since his recent experiences with the Noble wells and the Mewbourn plant near his property, Graham has reevaluated his position on hydraulic fracturing.
“I kind of did a 180 on my perspective,” he said. “I tried to reduce my consumption. I put solar panels on my house and solar panels on the libraries. It’s all a coming-of-age for me on this stuff. But I think we’re all intelligent enough to know that if you’re spewing all of this stuff into the atmosphere and shooting stuff into the ground, it’s going to affect something.”
“Am I anti-oil and gas?” he said. “Well, you know, I’m getting there. And they made me that way.”