Fires, explosions and toxic releases: Front Range residents fight fracking boom (2022)

For Barb Binder, the bad news arrived with a knock on the door. That’s when she learned from a local activist that a patch of open public space across from her “forever home” in Broomfield County, the Denver suburb where she and her husband planned to retire, was about to become an industrial site.

Initially, she was comforted by the thought that state officials would not possibly allow residential hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, as it is known – to begin if it was not safe.

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The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.

The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.

The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute,calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: "The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become."

One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change.

(Video) Fracking is Dangerous: The High Cost of Cheap Gas | ENDEVR Documentary

Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.

But two years on Binder feels naive for being so trusting. She believes her asthma has become worse since the construction near her home began, and blames the drilling mud that has been used on the site. And then there is the constant worry.

“I had to educate myself about exactly what’s involved in industrial-scale fracking,” she says. “It meant looking at the dangers – the fires, the explosions, the toxic releases, and recognising: ‘Oh my God, I am going to be living right next to this.’”

Binder now spends most of her free time opposing the plans of Extraction Oil and Gas, the Denver-based company that has plans to construct 84 wells around her neighbourhood, 16 of them “literally” – she says – in her backyard.

She is not alone. Since the advent of the fracking boom in oil-rich Colorado – where there has been a fivefold increase in oil and gas production since 2008 – new wells and production sites have sprung up around residential neighbourhoods in the Front Range faster than environmental researchers can track them.

There are 40,000 active and inactive wells across the Denver basin, and new permits issued every month for more. They are built close to schools, playgrounds, and clusters of family homes.

The boom has coincided with anecdotal tales of ill-effects – from children’s nosebleeds to asthma – and a health study that shows more children being born with congenital heart defects in areas of Colorado with high-intensity oil and gas activity compared with areas where there is low or no activity.

Extraction Oil and Gas told the Guardian it had used new technologies to “minimise the impact of oil and gas development” in the Front Range, compared with the way oil was extracted in previous decades.

A spokesperson said the company had learned some lessons from an incident on its Livingston site, after it voluntarily switched a drilling fluid it had been using because residents complained about the odour. It said air monitoring results had found “no health impact” from the smell.

“To date, all published air-quality monitoring results have been stellar, and conclusively show that any effects of our development on the air we breathe are negligible,” the company said.

(Video) Water On Fire from Fracking Gas Drilling

“We understand that there will always be those who oppose all oil and gas development whatsoever, or want to ‘leave it in the ground’, but we will continue our endeavours to minimise impacts of developing the energy we all use each day – and we will never stop innovating for the betterment of Colorado and our state’s economy.”

Yet the conflicts – between industry and residents, and sometimes neighbour versus neighbour – have felt, in the words of the local reporter Chase Woodruff, like a “civil war” at times.

And there have been accidents. In 2017, two men were killed, and a woman and child injured, after a house in Firestone, Colorado, exploded because of a leak of “fugitive gas” from an uncapped pipeline that was connected to a gas well near the home.

Erin Martinez, who lost her husband and brother in the blast, has moved house again after a new well began construction across from her home.

Environmental researchers from the not-for-profit Earthworks group travel from site to site in what sometimes seems like a game of whack-a-mole, using a special gas-finding imaging camera to track, document, and report what they describe as plumes of pollution that are being emitted from the sites, in what they claim is evidence of dangerous releases of methane and other volatile organic compounds that are not visible to the naked eye.

Oil companies have claimed that the plumes are not evidence of toxic emissions. The industry has claimed the plumes are a “heat signature” caused by high temperature drilling mud.

Dozens of complaints have been filed to state authorities, but regulators have deemed that most of those emissions are in the allowable range.

One proposal that would have forced oil and gas wells to be located at least 2,500ft (760 metres) – or half a mile – from homes and other buildings was voted down on a ballot initiative last year by a vote of 58% to 42%, in a significant blow to anti-fracking activists.

(Video) Stolen Land: Fracking's Tragic Dirty Secrets (Emmy-Winning Documentary) | Real Stories

Oil and gas advocates argue the “setback” proposal would have decimated their operations in Colorado, in effect barring new drilling from the Denver suburbs where nine in 10 new wells are being constructed.

Colorado Rising, one of the leading activist groups in the state, reportedly raised about $1.2m (£1m) to support the initiative, but were outspent when – activists say – industry sources pumped $41m into the race.

Opponents of fracking have, however, won one big victory since then. Last April, Colorado’s new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, signed a new mandate into law that forced one of the state’s most powerful institutions, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), to completely upend its mission.

Instead of fostering the oil and gas industry, Senate bill 181 (SB181) has forced the COGCC to regulate it, with a specific priority on public health and safety and focus on the environment.

The new law has raised questions: about whether a state with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry can ever really change, and whether fears about the climate crisis, and the ill-effects of fracking, will ever make a difference.

For years, the oil sector has argued that Colorado needs the multibillion-dollar industry and the hundreds of thousands of job it sustains.

Sara Loflin, the executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a campaigning group that helped get SB181 passed, says the legislation was a product of decades of Coloradans living with oil and gas in their communities, and seeing the effect of its pollution: the industrial waste, the bad air, the noise, and the constant low thumping vibrations that have made residents physically ill.

For years, Loflin told the Guardian, locals who were concerned about debris from abandoned sites, or the way soil at a local playground had changed colour, would have to make more than a dozen calls to get answers from public officials, and still be treated with hostility.

Now her organisation is seeking to remind local governments, who have also been given more power under SB181, that they have “the jurisdiction, the right, and the responsibility” to say no to new permits if health and safety is jeopardised.

But despite its legal firepower, there is no sign of rapid change within the Colorado market. At a recent meeting of the COGCC in Thornton, on an unseasonably hot autumn day, residents’ frustrations were aimed at Jeff Robbins, the director of the COGCC, who was appointed by Polis.

(Video) Fracking 101; The good and the bad

Since May, Robbins and the COGCC have approved 650 drilling permits and 82 location sites. Some permit applications have been delayed, but not a single one has been denied, despite the COGCC’s new mandate.

Pressed by the Guardian about whether he saw it as his job to say no to industry, Robbins said he believed it was his mission to take “a close look” at permit applications that were located close to homes.

“And that’s exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “What 181 says is that we don’t want to see all of the pending permits get a free pass. And we don’t want to see all pending permits be under a moratorium. It says we want you – director – using objective criteria to permit those that can be permitted, and potentially delay others that can’t be permitted, because they are not protected.”

When he was asked whether the climate crisis would affect the COGCC’s permit allocations under the new law, Robbins said climate could potentially be considered since SB181 required the commission to evaluate the cumulative effects of oil and gas operations on the environment.

Fires, explosions and toxic releases: Front Range residents fight fracking boom (1)

But Robbins said he would look for “stakeholder input” for guidance. He meets once a month with environmental activists and residents, and twice a month with industry.

For residents like Connie Beach, who returned home from a vacation in November 2017 to a letter that said she would soon be living next to a 30-well mega-pad for drilling, and was told there was “nothing to do about it”, the promise of SB181 is losing its lustre.

On a local Facebook group, people in her neighbourhood post about favoured local candidates who will fight industry. Most end up being challenged by opponents with deep pockets and ties to oil and gas.

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(Video) How does fracking work? - Mia Nacamulli

Joe Salazar, a former Democratic state legislator and civil rights lawyer who recently became the head of Colorado Rising, is keeping his eye on a proposed fracking site called Acme, which has been described by environmental experts as one of the most problematic in the state of Colorado. Permits have not yet been approved, but if they are, the site will contain 36 wells within 500ft (150 metres) of homes, and 100ft from a small airport runway.

The COGCC recently reopened a public comment period, inviting residents to air their views before the commission makes a decision.

“This is going to be one hell of a test case,” Salazar said. “The community is fighting like hell to get the COGCC to deny that. It really is left to the whims and wishes of the director … that’s why there is so much pressure on him.”

FAQs

What is the fracking boom? ›

Demand for natural gas has created a hydraulic fracturing or fracking boom; since 2008 over 5,000 new wells have been drilled nationwide. Workers at Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas companies conducting fracking, are seen on the job site near Towanda, PA.

Does fracking cause wildfires? ›

Fracking and climate change

These increased emissions contribute to the production of greenhouse gases, which trap heat. “Climate change is leading to hotter, drier conditions that are making fires more likely to burn, putting more fire on the landscape, and increasing the length of the fire season,” Kretzmann wrote.

How does fracking cause explosions? ›

One of the most explosive issues, literally, is whether fracking introduces methane into drinking water wells at levels that can make tap water flammable or can build up in confined spaces and cause home explosions. Studies are few, but a recent analysis suggests a link.

What are 3 risks of using fracking in the US? ›

Fracking sites release a toxic stew of air pollution that includes chemicals that can cause severe headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, and birth defects. In addition, many of the 1,000-plus chemicals used in fracking are harmful to human health—some are known to cause cancer.

What caused the fracking boom in America? ›

The fracking boom has been fuelled mostly by overheated investment capital, not by cash flow. If the story of the fracking boom has a central character, it's Aubrey McClendon, the founder of Chesapeake Energy, a startup that grew into a colossus.

When did the fracking boom happen? ›

The increase in fracking from 2009 led to a drop in natural gas prices that made natural gas become more competitive with coal.

Is the fracking boom over? ›

The end of the boom is in sight for America's fracking companies. Less than 3½ years after the shale revolution made the U.S. the world's largest oil producer, companies in the oil fields of Texas, New Mexico and North Dakota have tapped many of their best wells.

Is fracking safe Why or why not? ›

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is revolutionizing oil and gas drilling across the country. However, without rigorous safety regulations, it can poison groundwater, pollute surface water, impair wild landscapes, and threaten wildlife.

What happens after fracking? ›

Once a well is fracked, there are thousands of gallons of wastewater left over. Companies often dispose of that chemical-laced water by pumping it into separate underground "injection wells." As the water pressure builds up in those wells, that can shift rocks around.

What are the benefits of fracking? ›

Fracking Has Great Benefits

The process has steadily increased oil and natural gas production in the United States. As a result, it has lowered energy prices, improved air quality due to reduced carbon dioxide emissions, and improved the country's energy security.

What is fracking and how does it work? ›

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling method used to extract petroleum (oil) or natural gas from deep in the Earth. In the fracking process, cracks in and below the Earth's surface are opened and widened by injecting water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure.

Is it safe to live near fracking? ›

And is it safe to live near fracking sites? A recent study gave some important answers to that last question: No, it's not safe to live near fracking sites, and adding more fracking wells has a direct negative impact on public health.

How can we prevent fracking? ›

5 Technologies and Methods that can make Fracking Cleaner
  1. Using water-less fracking systems: ...
  2. Replace fresh water with recycled water or brine: ...
  3. Replace diesel powered equipment: ...
  4. Introduce wastewater purification: ...
  5. Reduce methane leaks:

How many people are affected by fracking? ›

But that growth has come with consequences. By 2017, researchers estimated 4.7 million people lived within 1 mile of an unconventional oil or gas well in the U.S. Health studies have found respiratory difficulties like coughing and wheezing in people living and working near fracking sites.

What happened to US fracking? ›

Fracking changed that equation and led to a new boom in oil and gas production in the U.S. Total U.S. crude oil production roughly tripled in the decade spanning from 2010 to 2020. 2 Over the same time period, the amount of total U.S. oil consumption provided by imports fell substantially.

When did the US shale boom start? ›

U.S. shale natural gas production rapidly increased after 2008—termed the "shale gas revolution" or "fracking revolution" by energy scholars—leading to a reversal of decades where US natural gas production was falling.

Where does fracking happen? ›

Fracking happens all across the U.S. in states such as North Dakota, Arkansas, Texas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania. One state, Vermont, recently banned the practice, though it doesn't have an active well being drilled. The map shows where fracking is currently taking place.

How fracking changed the world? ›

Fracking has unlocked incredible amounts of oil and gas, all but ended the threat of scarcity. It has led to an American petroleum boom, lowered the price of oil and gas around the world. Fracking has also raises a new level of environmental fear. It has been linked to earthquakes and toxic tap water.

What caused natural gas boom? ›

The shale gas boom resulted from factors that ultimately enabled firms to produce shale gas profitably, including technological innovation, government policy, private entrepreneurship, private land and mineral rights ownership, high natural gas prices in the 2000s, market structure, favorable geology, water ...

Is fracking banned in New York? ›

In 2017, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued revised regulations banning the use of waste from high-volume fracking on roadways, but continuing to allow road spreading of other liquids from oil and gas drilling operations.

Why are oil companies not drilling in the US? ›

As to why they weren't drilling more, oil executives blamed Wall Street. Nearly 60% cited "investor pressure to maintain capital discipline" as the primary reason oil companies weren't drilling more despite skyrocketing prices, according to the Dallas Fed survey.

What states have no fracking? ›

The extent of the natural gas resources underneath Maryland isn't known, according to state geologists. Two other states—Massachusetts and Vermont—also prohibit fracking. These drilling restrictions are primarily symbolic because neither region has major resources.

Is the US pumping less oil? ›

U.S. oil production is up less than 2 percent, to 11.8 million barrels a day, since December and remains well below the record 13.1 million barrels a day set in March 2020 just before the pandemic paralyzed the global economy.

Who is affected by fracking? ›

Fracking in California poses serious risks to the state's wildlife. Endangered species like California condors, San Joaquin kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards live in places where fracking is likely to expand, and these animals face direct and indirect harm.

Is fracking for oil or gas? ›

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is more commonly known, is just one small method of the broader process of unconventional development of oil and natural gas. Fracking is a proven drilling technology used for extracting oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, or water from deep underground.

Does fracking ruin water? ›

Fracking can contaminate water supplies if it is not done properly, because the fracking fluid injected into rock to enable gas to be released often contains chemicals.

What are some pros and cons of fracking? ›

The pros and cons of fracking
  • Pro: alternative to coal. ...
  • Con: a question of demand. ...
  • Pro: access to materials. ...
  • Con: risk of earthquakes. ...
  • Pro: job creation. ...
  • Con: air and water pollution.

How long will U.S. fracking last? ›

Sometimes, wells are re-fracked to extend their production, but the energy each well can produce may last for 20 to 40 years.

Is fracking clean energy? ›

Fracked natural gas burns more cleanly than coal and oil, so the net result is less carbon and other particulates. By replacing coal with gas, America has led the world in reducing carbon pollution. It may sound strange, but natural gas is a fossil fuel that's so far been good for the climate.

Is fracking worse than drilling? ›

Getting a fractured well going is more intense than for conventional oil and gas drilling, with potential health threats arising from increases in volatile organic compounds and air toxics.

Is fracking good or bad for the environment? ›

Fracking has been blamed for leaking millions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Fracking is also associated with other airborne hydrocarbons that can cause health and respiratory issues. Fracking uses large amounts of water, which can become contaminated and affect local groundwater.

Does fracking save money? ›

The U.S. fracking revolution has caused natural gas prices to drop 47 percent compared to what the price would have been prior to the fracking revolution in 2013. Gas bills have dropped $13 billion per year from 2007 to 2013 as a result of increased fracking, which adds up to $200 per year for gas-consuming households.

Why is fracking better than other methods? ›

One of the incredible advantages to fracking is that it can recover both crude oil and natural gas from shale deposits in unprecedented amounts. This has driven down the price of natural gas and made natural gas a more viable solution than coal.

Does fracking cause pollution? ›

POLLUTING AIR AND WATER, KILLING WILDLIFE

Fracking can release dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene and xylene. It also increases ground-level ozone levels, raising people's risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Wildlife is also in danger.

What impact does fracking have on the environment? ›

Used extensively in the U.S., fracking has led to heightened concerns about its impact on the environment and human health. The process creates vast amounts of wastewater, emits greenhouse gases such as methane, releases toxic air pollutants and generates noise.

How do you explain fracking to a child? ›

What is fracking? | #aumsum #kids #science #education #children

How far away should you live from a fracking site? ›

The University of Maryland's School of Public Health recommended that state set a distance of 2,000 feet from any well.

Does fracking affect house prices? ›

House prices near fracking wells were likely to fall, and there was a potential reduction of up to 7% in property values within a mile of wells. Properties within a one- to five-mile radius of fracking sites may incur additional insurance costs.

Does fracking cause sinkholes? ›

So we can verify this as FALSE -- fracking does not create sinkholes. However it could cause them to open. I want to be clear: there are no current oil or gas wells or fracking in Land O' Lakes.

Can we get natural gas without fracking? ›

Today, a common approach to non-hydraulic fracturing involves the use of natural gas as the fracturing medium. Rather than injecting fracking liquids and water into the well, this method involves compressing natural gas at the drill site and then injecting that compressed gas into the well to fracture rock formations.

Why is fracking banned in some countries? ›

Some cases of bans and moratoriums on fracking directly apply the precautionary principle, although others apply it without mentioning it explicitly because “these measures are based on the risk of serious and irreversible damage caused by the technique or the uncertainty about the science behind it and the scope and ...

What chemicals are used in fracking? ›

Chemicals Used in Fracking

Common ingredients include methanol, ethylene glycol, and propargyl alcohol. Those chemicals, along with many others used in fracking fluid, are considered hazardous to human health.

How much land has fracking destroyed? ›

Damage to our natural heritage: Well pads, new access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure turn forests and rural landscapes into industrial zones. Infrastructure to support fracking has damaged 360,000 acres of land for drilling sites, roads and pipelines since 2005.

How many people are affected by fracking in the US? ›

A: Working with a colleague at the Wall Street Journal, we set out to ask that exact question. The answer: At least 15.3 million Americans lived within a mile of a well that has been drilled since 2000. That is more people than live in Michigan or New York City.

How many people live near oil and gas wells? ›

Roughly 17.6 million U.S. residents currently live within one kilometer of at least one active well.

Is the fracking boom over? ›

The end of the boom is in sight for America's fracking companies. Less than 3½ years after the shale revolution made the U.S. the world's largest oil producer, companies in the oil fields of Texas, New Mexico and North Dakota have tapped many of their best wells.

Why has fracking become popular? ›

Domestic production of oil and natural gas has risen sharply, leading to cheaper energy and a reduced reliance on imports. Advocates often argue that fracking is creating jobs, boosting manufacturing, and helping to tackle global warming by reducing the amount of coal we use.

Will there be another fracking boom? ›

The productivity of new wells in the Permian is expected to hit a record high in 2022, with next year forecast to be a landmark for the US as a whole—a record 12.6 million barrels of crude oil pumped each day across the country.

What is fracking and how does it work? ›

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling method used to extract petroleum (oil) or natural gas from deep in the Earth. In the fracking process, cracks in and below the Earth's surface are opened and widened by injecting water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure.

Why are oil companies not drilling in the US? ›

As to why they weren't drilling more, oil executives blamed Wall Street. Nearly 60% cited "investor pressure to maintain capital discipline" as the primary reason oil companies weren't drilling more despite skyrocketing prices, according to the Dallas Fed survey.

Is there still fracking in USA? ›

Fracking has been documented in more than 30 U.S. states and is particularly widespread in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. And it's expanding into new areas, making states like California, New Mexico and Nevada increasingly threatened by a potential fracking boom.

What states have no fracking? ›

The extent of the natural gas resources underneath Maryland isn't known, according to state geologists. Two other states—Massachusetts and Vermont—also prohibit fracking. These drilling restrictions are primarily symbolic because neither region has major resources.

Should fracking be legal? ›

One reason why the US should allow fracking because a benefit to it is oil and gas. Fracking allows us drill thousands of feet to get access to the gas stored deep within the earth stones far below the surface. Also gas has been becoming cheaper and cheaper because it is more abundant.

What is fracking pros and cons? ›

The pros and cons of fracking
  • Pro: alternative to coal. ...
  • Con: a question of demand. ...
  • Pro: access to materials. ...
  • Con: risk of earthquakes. ...
  • Pro: job creation. ...
  • Con: air and water pollution.

Is fracking good for the environment? ›

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is revolutionizing oil and gas drilling across the country. However, without rigorous safety regulations, it can poison groundwater, pollute surface water, impair wild landscapes, and threaten wildlife.

How long will US fracking last? ›

Sometimes, wells are re-fracked to extend their production, but the energy each well can produce may last for 20 to 40 years.

How long will Texas oil last? ›

VERIFY: There is enough oil in Texas and New Mexico to fuel the US for 200 years, but it's not easily accessible. Energy expert, Ed Hirs, says recovering oil from the Permian Basin would be expensive and would require more workers and materials.

Is there fracking in US in 2022? ›

The productivity of new wells in the Permian is expected to hit a record high in 2022, with next year forecast to be a landmark for the US as a whole – a record 12.6m barrels of crude oil pumped each day across the country.

What is the problem with fracking? ›

Fracking has been blamed for leaking millions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Fracking is also associated with other airborne hydrocarbons that can cause health and respiratory issues. Fracking uses large amounts of water, which can become contaminated and affect local groundwater.

Why is fracking so controversial? ›

Why Is Fracking Controversial? Fracking has a long rap list ranging from its use of carcinogenic chemicals to its environmental polluting methods. Residents who live near fracking sites complain about groundwater contamination, air pollution, earthquakes, noise pollution, and more.

Videos

1. Inside Story Americas - Fracking: A cure or a curse?
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2. Risks of Fracking
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3. Does fracking cause earthquakes? - TechKnow
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4. How Fracking Is Harming Rural America | Split-Estate | Earth Stories
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5. Fracking Friction - 3.6.2011
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6. Dan Rather Reports, "Fracking Gas" Full Episode
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