Oil, Gas Drilling Rile Western United States’ Energy Embrace
This used to be a land proud of its oil barons. Now the energy industry that has brought wealth and jobs across the interior West is prompting angry protests by citizens sporting gas masks and using bullhorns at public hearings.
A generation after the fictional oil tycoons of the TV soap “Dynasty” gave Denver’s oil and gas industry a glamorous sheen, the Rocky Mountain region appears to be questioning its romance with the industry. New drilling technology has moved oil and gas production from the sparsely populated plains, where oil rigs are embraced as job creators, closer to cities and suburbs. Now, conflicts are increasing along the populous eastern fringe of the Rockies.
Gas-mask-wearing protesters are confronting city and county officials considering whether to limit or ban hydraulic fracturing, a drilling procedure in which water, sand and chemicals are forced deep underground to pry oil and gas from rock. Fracking, as the procedure is called, has led to an energy boom in areas previously unattractive to energy producers, but it is also raising concerns about air and water quality.
The protests in Colorado have gotten intense. At hearings across the state, shouting opponents harass oil and gas representatives. Even Colorado’s governor, a Democrat and former geologist who says fracking is safe, has been mobbed by protesters. Leaving a suburban Denver meeting about drilling earlier this fall, Gov. John Hickenlooper ducked into an SUV and pulled away as a crowd of protesters, some of them children, chanted, “Dirty water, dirty air, we get sick and you don’t care!”
Opposition to fracking has also surfaced in Idaho, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has probed whether the procedure may be responsible for groundwater contamination near the Wyoming town of Pavillion. State officials and others have disputed that claim.
The West’s anti-fracking movement hit a watershed moment in a Denver suburb in this year’s elections. Longmont, a town of about 85,000 located 30 miles from Denver, voted overwhelmingly to buck state law and prohibit fracking in the city, setting up a legal showdown over whether individual communities can challenge the powerful Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry statewide.
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