Environmentalists Hyped False Fracking Fears Ahead of Elections

Colorado regulators find water contamination concerns that led to fracking bans were ‘unfounded’

Oil and gas workers after the flood in Erie, Colo. / AP
March 24, 2014

Environmental activists ginned up false fears about flood-induced contamination from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado shortly before voters in the state weighed in on moratoria on the practice, a new report from state regulators shows.

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), flooding in the state last year did not contaminate water in the area by damaging oil and gas drilling equipment.

"Early on, there were widespread fears that public safety was threatened by damaged oil and gas equipment," the commission said in a report released last week.

"Those fears later proved to be unfounded, but they attracted nationwide attention nevertheless," the report found.

‪Environmental activists in the state sought to highlight the supposed environmental dangers posed by fracking ahead of referenda in four Colorado towns that had proposed fracking bans. All four of the bans passed.

The same environmental activists are now gearing up for a statewide ballot initiative to ban fracking in Colorado, and are still touting environmental dangers that the COGCC says never existed.

"People are familiar with this issue, all around the state. They’re doing their own research and talking about fracking and local control. … It’s in the news," said Laura Fronckiewicz, a Colorado anti-fracking activist who pushed a ban in Broomfield, Colo., and is now working on the statewide effort for a group called Local Control Colorado (LCC).

LCC is backed by a number of large out-of-state environmentalist groups, including and Food and Water Watch, which are headquartered in New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively.

Fronckiewicz recently received support from to supplement her anti-fracking work in the state.

Supporters of the practice say fracking is "in the news" due to work by Fronckiewicz and others who falsely inflate environmental risks.

Concerns about water contamination during the 2013 floods "were the direct result of reckless claims from environmental activists who were running campaigns to ban oil and gas development in several cities along Colorado’s Northern Front Range," wrote Simon Lomax for the industry site Energy in Depth on Sunday.

The supposed contamination occurred in September, when Colorado experienced heavy flooding.

Environmentalist groups highlighted what they said were images of water contamination caused by damaged oil and gas drilling operations to call for a ban on hydraulic facturing. They urged voters to support four municipal ballot initiatives to ban or place a moratorium on the practice.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of toxic chemicals floating down the river, potentially ending up in communities, next to homes, next to agriculture land," said Food and Water Watch spokesman Sam Schabacker at the time.

"We have communities that are going to be inundated with all these petrochemicals and fracking fluids," said the group Fractivist.

Frack-Free Colorado and Earthworks both circulated petitions highlighting the supposed contamination in Colorado when they called for fracking bans.

Environmental activists pushed local and national media to cover the floods as a "fracking flood disaster."

A group called EcoFlight organized helicopter flyovers of flooded areas with activists from Frack-Free Colorado and Fractivist and reporters from CNN, CBS, and Reuters to document supposed water contamination.

"We pushed dozens of photos through blogs and social media sites to get the mainstream media’s attention to the unfolding environmental disaster in the gas fields," EcoFlight said. "Congratulations—we succeeded."

A number of news outlets covered the supposed water contamination, including the Denver Post. That newspaper ran a photo on its front page with a caption that claimed crude oil was leaking from a damaged tank.

The Post later issued a correction, noting that the substance in the picture was not crude oil but "standing water left behind after floodwaters receded."

Any oil that did leak as a result of the flood is "now undetectable," the COGCC found.

"For the most part, spilled liquids from oil and gas operations washed away in the flood without leaving a trace behind," the report said.

Most of the post-flood water contamination came from sewage, said Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

"There were likely hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage and that is the larger public health concern," he told a local paper.

"There were no significant [oil or gas] discharges found by the EPA," David Ostrander, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s emergency response and preparedness program, told COGCC.

According to Mike Leonard, COGCC’s field inspector for the state’s southern region, "no hydraulic simulations were affected," and "other than getting casing crews in no drilling operations were affected."

Due to heightened media attention given to the threat of water contamination COGCC staff "had to devote resources to respond to some complaints that were unfounded."

The oil and gas industry had undertaken extensive safety precautions in advance of the flooding in the area, including evacuating drilling sites, removing equipment, and bringing in trucks, boats, and helicopters to help access affected areas, Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Tisha Conoly Schuller told the COGCC.

The "biggest challenge" for the state’s oil and gas industry, Conoly Schuller told COGCC, is "correcting misinformation about ‘catastrophic’ oil and gas spills."

Environmentalist groups "very clearly exploited this tragedy for political purposes," Lomax said in an email.

"It was clear from the beginning of the tragic September floods that anti-fracking activists in Colorado would mislead voters with sensationalism and distract them from the real threats of raw sewage and household chemicals in the residual floodwater," said Michael Sandoval, an energy policy analyst with the Colorado-based Independence Institute.

"There’s no doubt that seeing tanks floating down the Platte River, seeing oil spills spread out across floodwaters as they traveled toward agricultural land, had a significant impact" on the anti-fracking initiatives, Schabacker told the New York Times.

Food and Water Watch and its allies are preparing for a statewide ballot initiative this year that would allow municipalities in the state to ban fracking.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said municipalities do not have that authority under current law, which vests oil and gas regulatory authority in state agencies.