‘Fracking’ moves to the suburbs

Kirk Siegler Dec 27, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: So imagine you’re driving through the suburbs of a big American city. You see an Applebee’s on your right, Best Buy on your left. And then, a big natural gas drilling operation. The new gas extraction technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is actually making suburban drilling more possible. It’s now easier and less expensive to extract natural gas from populated areas.

From KUNC in Colorado, Kirk Siegler reports.

Kirk Siegler: To get an idea of just how thirsty we’re getting for oil and gas, a good place to start is the cul-de-sac where Shane Davis lives north of Denver.

Shane Davis: Well it’s crazy. I mean, when you see these derricks that shoot up 150 feet in the air, they light up like a giant Christmas tree at night time.

From his back door, Davis looks out on a tan-colored drill rig and a pair of storage tanks less than 100 yards from his neighborhood of tract homes in the town of Firestone.

Davis: I see it as an eye sore, a big one.

In the past decade, Firestone has grown from 2,000 to more than 10,000 residents. This year alone, the state has approved 16 drilling permits within the city limits.

Davis: It’s not healthy.

His is not an uncommon complaint these days. For the past two years, the drill rigs have been on a steady march from the rural western slopes of the Rockies to eastern Colorado where most of the people in this state live. All are looking for a piece of the Niobrara Shale, a vast underground rock formation thought to hold more than a billion barrels of oil.

Just across the interstate, the city of Longmont is also starting to see a drilling boom.

Brad Scholl: I’ve seen that darn rig number five around here a lot lately.

Brad Scholl is the Longmont city planner. He stands next to a mobile rig that today is working a well surrounded by homes. Colorado state law is murky when it comes to drilling in populated areas. There’s no law allowing cities and towns to ban fracking. But there’s no provision that says they can’t either. For now, Scholl says, Longmont is trying to work with the state and the industry to regulate how and where drilling can occur within city limits.

Scholl: It really becomes a matter of artful negotiation.

Nearby, the city of Colorado Springs has taken a different approach. It’s enacted a six-month ban on drilling. Cities and towns across the country, especially in the Northeast, are also trying to come to grips with the issue as fracking spreads to populated areas.

John Nolon teaches land use law at Pace University in New York.

John Nolon: This is a high drama, if not melodrama, that we’re dealing with and I think it rivals any environmental and economic clash that we’ve had to work out in the past.

Some local governments in Colorado are embracing the economic side of that clash. Oil and gas is one of only a few sectors steadily adding jobs in the state. Weld County, northeast of Denver, now has more than 250,000 residents. It also has more producing wells than any other county in the country.

Commissioner Sean Conway says oil and gas revenues now fund half of the county’s budget.

Sean Conway: It is going to provide at a very challenging time for local and state governments a new source of revenue that will allow them maybe to do some things that they couldn’t do because of the economic challenges.

Still, even fracking advocates say drillers need to do more to educate and engage with landowners as rigs continue to go up in the suburbs.

Tisha Schuller is the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Tisha Schuller: I think the reality is across the country where you have any kind of energy development right now, it’s going to be happening in more developed areas.

Back in Firestone, Shane Davis takes a drive through his neighborhood. He says he wants more than just engagement.

Davis: The irony, we’ve got residential areas, and yet we’ve got 25 signs that say “danger” or “toxic chemicals.”

Davis says his neighborhood was never meant to accommodate drilling. Colorado recently required energy companies to disclose the concentrations of chemicals used in fracking. But Davis wants even tighter regulations. As it stands, companies only need to maintain a set-back of 150 feet when putting up rigs near homes. It’s the minimum clearance needed to avoid damage — in case the rig tips over.

In Denver, I’m Kirk Siegler for Marketplace.

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