Those who live on the front lines of the natural gas industry’s fracking operations out west are hoping that the light shed on the natural gas industry will finally get people listening to what they have been saying for years.
“I feel terrible for the people of Pennsylvania and the east coast who are going through exactly what we have been going through, but a part of me is happy they are at least getting attention, because no one seems to have listened to us out west,” said Lisa Bracken a resident of Garfield County Colorado, where she lives just yards from natural gas fracking operations.
Bracken’s comments came only a week before the New York Times’ Ian Urbina published an investigation about hydraulic fracking, a process where toxic chemicals are injected into the ground to get to natural gas reserves. In the piece, Urbina pointed out some of the waste water produced in fracking fields contained so much radioactivity that it was “hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water.” Bracken and many of her neighbors in Garfield County are likely hoping that the Urbina finding will be the final straw that leads to strict regulation of what has been described as modern day “gold rush” for natural gas.
“Many of those around here have been speaking up,” said Bracken, “but nothing good happens.” Bracken went on to say that fewer citizens are speaking out because they often become the focus of industry attacks. “You have heard about AIG being too big to fail these guys are too big to care about anything or anybody besides their bottom lines. It’s part of their campaign, it’s part of their P.R. approach. They deny, they reframe it, they spin it.”
The influence of the natural gas industry has had a chilling effect on many in Garfield County. Many of the landowners who spoke with the Checks and Balances Project in February said they feared retribution. In some cases that fear was based on what has happened to neighbors, and in other cases it was based on what happened to professionals who have objectively studied fracking in Garfield County.
One of those professionals is Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a hydrologist commissioned by the county to study the possible presence of toxic fracking fluids in the nearby West Divide Creek, which runs right behind Lisa Bracken’s property. Thyne’s 2004 study raised suspicion that fracking in Garfield County was leading to contamination of the West Divide Creek. “We were looking at hundreds of wells, it was a very large study and as we looked at them we found about a dozen wells that were contaminated with methane which is from natural gas as well as minute quantities of other products and we couldn’t explain why,” said Thyne. From there Thyne’s research was focused on what was causing the presence of these toxins. “We found out that the most likely source was the natural gas drilling. That really opened peoples’ eyes,” said Thyne.
The eyes opened by the study included the powers that be at Thyne’s employer at the time, The Colorado School of Mines, where the hydrologist worked as a research professor. Thyne says he was told to cease his research by higher-ups. He didn’t. And when it came to renew his contract, Thyne was cut loose. “Over a period of time my roles were marginalized. As a research professor you are supposed to be bringing money in and it became more difficult. There were a series of statements made over a two-year period that basically said “you’d be better off some place else.”
Sometimes the chilling effect surrounding fracking comes in other forms. For journalists in Garfield County the phrase “economic blackmail” comes up again and again. The reporters who spoke with the Checks and Balances Project preferred to speak off the record during the February investigation. But they said it’s not too hard to see how the natural gas industry is making it hard for journalists to cover the energy industry. One former reporter is Leslie Robinson. Robinson used to report in the Colorado town of Rifle and is now frequently attends Garfield County Commissioner meetings advocating for “nothing more than responsible drilling practices, so energy can be developed and safety of residents can be preserved.” Robinson said it’s not too hard to understand how the natural gas industry economically blackmails reporters in western Colorado. “We need more media but the industry puts pressure on the media to write good things about the industry. Again, it’s economic blackmail. ‘We won’t advertise, our friends won’t advertise, if you say something bad about the industry,’” said Robinson.
Despite fears of economic blackmail, loss of employment and character assassination campaigns many who claim they have nothing to lose continue to speak up. Still their arguments tend to fall on deaf ears. Dee Hoffmeister, who saw a major explosion from a fracking well near her home, is a resident of Garfield County. Beyond the explosion, Hoffmeister began suffering from all sorts of ailments after fracking operations began around what she called her “dream retirement house.” After breaking down in tears, Hoffmeister recalled her testimony before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The COGCC overseas drilling procedures on all lands in the state that aren’t owned by the federal government. “There are some [on the OGCC] who are probably in the back pocket of a lobbyist or something, because they don’t even pay attention to the testimony. They don’t ask questions. They just spin around in chairs and get candy bars and pop and then when it comes time to vote they vote against it. You can see it right away; I mean it’s so obvious to all of us when we go there to testify.”
Other tales of chilling effects in Garfield County are more blatant. Tara Meixsell is a landowner who lives not far from the Hoffmeister’s. She explains about what happened to another neighbor who began questioning the safety of fracking in Garfield County. “The next thing you know a frack pad ended up 350 feet from his home. That happened. Not to me but to my neighbors up the road. That’s intimidation.” While that situation didn’t involve Meixsell, another one did. The Garfield County resident recalled a time years ago when she testified at the Colorado Supreme Court in Denver. “I got shoved in the rotunda of the Supreme Court from behind right after I testified about the legal review of the gas and oil bill.” Meixsell said the man who blatantly went out of his way to make contact with her was a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
These are just a sampling of the voices that have tried to speak out in favor of more accountability and more open information about fracking in Colorado. They have all seen influence from the industry in one way or another. They all claim that they have been ignored. But now, as fracking garners more and more scrutiny in the east, they may get heard even if they are thousands of miles to the west.