Is Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Commission a Playground Bully?

Concerned citizens protest the COGCC hearing as agency gives permits to pollute Colorado schools and playgrounds

After an Erie mom found toxic levels of Benzene in her 6-year-old’s blood, Colorado parents’ concerns about the health impacts of oil and gas operations on their families have deepened. Permits to drill in Colorado have spiked, many of them targeting schools, playgrounds, open space and homes. Outraged by the lack of concern for public health, hundreds of concerned parents, youth, and community members attended the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) hearing on Monday at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before entering the auditorium, it was clear from the mixture of pro-energy signs, wanted signs for COGCC commissioners, and photos of recent fracking explosions, that the tension around oil and gas development in residential communities is reaching a boiling point. However, whether testifying in favor of fracking or against, there was a central core message: Colorado communities are concerned about their health, safety and jobs; and the COGCC has a responsibility to uphold public health and safety while finding a balance that protects the economy of local communities.

“I hope that all of our candidates for Governor and Attorney General are paying close attention to what is going on at these hearings,” said Julia Williams of 350 Colorado. “It is clear that Coloradans are tired of being ignored and that they will be looking to our future representatives for major changes in the COGCC that promote the overall well-being of our communities, not just oil and gas interests.”

Neighbors of oil and gas operations filed numerous complaints with the COGCC reporting bloody noses, trouble breathing and a variety of health issues. Local parents passionately testified about feeling unsafe in their homes and fearing for their child’s safety when they send them to school. Many commentators simply wanted answers about why fracking operations needed to be so close to their homes and schools, when operators can horizontally drill miles underground.

The frustrations of community members were clear when the room erupted in a chant and dozens of community members were removed from the hearing room. The room echoed “too many permits, not enough protection, no Bella wells” as citizens attempted to have their voices heard. Commenters even called the commission a playground bully, stating that the proximity of wells to schools and playgrounds result in parents avoiding their favorite places to play for fear of harm.

After the hearing, protesters relocated to Bella Romero Academy, where fracking operations are underway several hundred feet from a 4th-8th grade school, playground and ball fields. Protesters called on Governor John Hickenlooper as well as candidates for Governor and Attorney General to end the drilling at Bella Romero. Local groups personally invited the COGCC members to join them at Bella Romero to fully understand the proximity of wells to the school and talk with local parents. However, the commissioners did not respond to the invitation and did not attend.

“After continued visits to Bella Romero Academy by hundreds of supporters Including teachers, gubernatorial candidates, mothers, press, front range activists, scientists, neighbors, and medical professionals we stand united to say STOP the fracking now. We will NOT allow this industry to continue to harm our Children and Our Earth,” said Paddy McClelland of Wall of Women Colorado.

“Not only will they be allowed to drill the 24 wells 680 ft from my child’s playground, there is room at the site to add 30 more wells,” said concerned Bella Romero parent Patricia Nelson.

The COGCC admitted during their April 30 hearing that applications are coming in too fast and noted that they have 340 pending matters and a shortage of hearing officers. This coupled with the commission’s deficit raises a lot of concern about why they continue to approve permits with such limited capacity and funding.

“It is only early June and the Boulder County monitor has already violated the federal smog standard,” said Robert Ukeiley, Senior Attorney in the Environmental Health Program at the Center for Biological Diversity.  “Oil and Gas is a leading contributor to our smog problem but the state just keeps issuing more and more permits that contribute to pollution,” he continued.

More than 300 local community members have given testimony at COGCC hearings in the last year and over 500 letters have been sent to the commission in the last month, yet little has changed. After hearing two and a half hours of public comment from over 60 Coloradans, the commission continued the day approving more permits in Colorado communities. It remains true that to date, the COGCC has yet to deny a single oil and gas permit in the state of Colorado.

Amidst the lack of change within the COGCC, 19 Colorado cities and counties have signed onto an amicus brief in support of the Martinez vs. COGCC decision, which requires the commission to prioritize health and safety over oil and gas extraction. Additionally, over 60 Colorado groups have endorsed the Colorado Rising ballot initiative campaign to increase setbacks from oil and gas wells to 2,500 feet.