By Larry Borowsky
Back in 2013, Mineral Resources, Inc., was awarded a permit to drill up to 67 gas wells a few hundred feet away from Frontier Academy in Greeley, Colo. A high-performing charter school founded in 1997, Frontier caters largely to white, upper-middle-class families. When they learned a fracking pad was about to move in next to their children’s classrooms and playgrounds, a group of parents organized a determined opposition. More than a year of delays ensued.
During the interim, Mineral Resources was bought by Extraction Oil and Gas. Rather than keep battling over the Frontier Academy location, Extraction abandoned it and turned its attention to another promising drilling site, about four miles away. The new location also sat within a thousand feet of a school—one with a very different population from Frontier’s. Bella Romero Academy, a middle school on Greeley’s eastern fringe, serves mostly working-class Hispanic families. Nearly 90 percent of its children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
It’s the type of community that typically can’t put up much resistance against the mighty oil and gas industry; the type of community that usually bears fracking-related health hazards in relative silence.
“The drilling in lower-income and minority communities happens very quietly,” says Thornton, Colo. Councilman Val Vigil, who is pushing for restrictions on fracking in his municipality. “It’s only when they want to put in wells near half-million-dollar homes that everyone goes berserk.”
“People with more money and more education can fight back,” agrees anti-fracking activist Mickey San Miguel, a native of Weld County (where Greeley is located). “In communities like the one I grew up in, people don’t have the resources to take on these kinds of fights.”
Extraction got its permit to drill next to Bella Romero, but the company also got something it might not have been expecting: a confrontation.
Weld Air and Water (WAW), a grassroots operation that helped organize the Frontier parents, kept its eye on Extraction—and it orchestrated a resistance the Bella Romero parents almost surely couldn’t have mustered on their own. Joined by three other nonprofits, WAW sued the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) in an attempt to nullify Extraction’s permit.
The plaintiffs explicitly frame the harm in terms of environmental justice. Fracking operators, the lawsuit argues, “generally experience the least amount of pushback when siting major oil and gas development in predominantly minority communities since these communities do not have the same resources as more affluent communities.”
Extraction officials declined to comment for this article, noting that the permit is the subject of pending litigation.
Fracking’s health equity implications haven’t attracted much attention in Colorado, but researchers in other regions have begun mapping the distribution of fracking-related health hazards. A 2015 study of fracking in Pennsylvania showed that “census tracts with potential exposure to pollution from unconventional [i.e., fracking] wells have significantly higher percent of poor population.” Researchers in southern Texas found that storage wells for fracking wastewater are “disproportionately permitted in areas with higher proportions of people of color and residents living in poverty.”
Along the Front Range, the oil and gas industry’s seemingly inexorable growth has brought it almost literally to the doorstep of suburban and exurban homes. Residents and local government officials have reacted with justifiable alarm, as various studies have documented links between fracking and air pollution, groundwater pollution, noise pollution and other hazards.
But the industry’s encroachment on residential areas only seems to generate headlines when white middle-class homeowners are affected. Fracking’s impact on communities with lower incomes and a higher proportion of people of color has largely been overlooked by activists, and hasn’t been well studied.
“The anti-fracking movement in Colorado has been led by white people in white neighborhoods,” says Elizabeth Murphy, a community organizer with the Colorado People’s Alliance, which focuses on economic and environmental justice issues. “The narrative is all about them. That’s why we hear about those wells, but the wells located near communities of color aren’t even part of the conversation.”
Until this century, natural gas companies had little flexibility in where they sited their wells—they had to position the rig directly above the formation they wanted to frack. But with recent advances in horizontal drilling, they can now sink a well a few miles away from the target formation, then make a 90-degree turn underground and drill laterally to reach the gas-bearing rock. Companies have an obvious incentive to site wells in locations that are least likely to draw scrutiny.
The C Street Directional well pad is a typical case. Located just outside Greeley’s city limit in an area with demographics similar to Bella Romero’s, the C Street pad hosts 17 active wells, with another 4 under permit, according to COGCC records. The nearest home sits less than 400 feet away, and hundreds of residences lie within 1,000 feet. Many of these are rentals or mobile homes with property values that are a fraction of the state’s median home value, according to online records held by the Weld County assessor’s office.
The location is so problematic that the operator—Extraction Oil and Gas, the same company that holds the permit at Bella Romero—had to request multiple waivers allowing it to bypass the usual setback requirements for drilling near residences. The COGCC granted the waivers and approved the permit. Yet there were no lawsuits, no media coverage, not even so much as a nasty letter to the COGCC.
“There’s no opposition at sites like C Street because there’s no awareness,” says Sara Barwinski, a WAW activist who’s tangled with the oil and gas industry over several Weld County sites, including Frontier Academy. “When companies apply for a permit, the notifications to neighbors”—a required part of the application—“are only written in English. There’s no dual-language requirement. And the notifications are written in such opaque language that it’s hard to understand them even if you’re a native English speaker.”
A former social worker who spent her career working with families of color and/or those living in poverty, Barwinski knew almost nothing about fracking until Synergy Resources filed for a permit near her own Greeley neighborhood in 2013.
“We had advantages that a lot of communities don’t have,” she says. “Aside from the means and the education, we had a feeling of empowerment—a feeling that if we stick up for ourselves, we might actually get taken seriously.” Even then, Barwinski says, it can be hard to mobilize opposition, because “a lot of people just don’t want to rock the boat.”
That’s especially true in working-class communities, says Mickey San Miguel, where a lot of people rely on the industry for their paycheck.
“It’s not that people are blind to the health issues,” he says. “But sometimes people don’t want to raise any trouble because they’re working for an oil and gas company, or their family is working in the industry, or their friends are.
“I have friends who worked for Halliburton welding pipes, or driving trucks to haul water up to the fracking sites. You make 15, 16, 20 bucks an hour. That’s really enticing if you’ve grown up with almost nothing.”
Oil and gas companies also try to build loyalty via gestures of local support. “They’ll put on concerts or fireworks shows,” says San Miguel. “We had a road built, sponsored by Anadarko. Stuff like that changes the perspective in a low-income community. People appreciate it and feel gratitude toward it.”
But drillers don’t always resort to sweeteners to gain the upper hand. In many cases, they just exploit their built-in advantages.
“The companies rely on the fact that these communities don’t have many resources or any clout,” says Chris Canaly, who as director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) has spent more than a decade collaborating with Hispanic landowners to oppose fracking. “Our first big oil and gas play down here was in Conejos County in about 2007. They were planning on developing Flat Top Mesa, and they assumed none of the neighboring landowners… would do anything about it.”
With the SLVEC’s support, about two dozen landowners joined forces to pressure the county commissioners and Bureau of Land Management to intervene. The development plans were eventually scrapped, and the drilling companies haven’t returned. “They know we’re paying attention,” Canaly says.
If public attention and awareness are the best defenses against fracking, is that driving fracking rigs into communities in Colorado that lack visibility or resources?
“We can’t say that’s happening, based on the data we have,” says Lisa McKenzie, PhD, MPH, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”
McKenzie coauthored one of the few academic studies of fracking’s health equity patterns in Colorado. Her paper found “economic, rural, participatory, and/or distributive injustices that could contribute to health risk vulnerabilities in populations near [oil and gas] wells.” However, she says it’s impossible to know at this point whether communities of color or with lower incomes are bearing a disproportionate share of fracking’s health hazards.
“The current data aren’t fine-grained enough to draw strong conclusions,” McKenzie says. “We only have data on race, ethnicity, income and education down to the census-block level, which just doesn’t work spatially. Census blocks are usually measured in miles or fractions of miles, whereas the distances that matter in oil and gas development are measured in hundreds of feet.”
For example, the census block encompassing Bella Romero Academy has a far more balanced demographic profile (about a 50-50 split between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white residents) than the school’s student body. In other words, the census data understate the degree to which Hispanic children would disproportionately bear the health risks of nearby fracking.
Further complicating attempts at data analysis, just two counties (Garfield and Weld) hold more than half of Colorado’s 50,000+ oil and gas wells, giving those two populations an outsized influence on the results. For all of these reasons, the actual extent of fracking’s impact on health equity remains elusive.
“There’s a lot more work to be done on the environmental justice angle,” McKenzie says. “We need better data and more vigilance, so we can look at it more closely.”
Rigorous data analysis is essential, says WAW’s Barwinski, but it’s only the first step. Ultimately, minimizing fracking’s public health impacts will require Colorado communities of all types to demand tighter restrictions and more transparency.
“It’s exhausting to wage these battles,” Barwinski says. “Even when you win, it can feel like you’ve lost. But we’ve gotten a little smarter each time. We’ve built up a knowledge base and a set of relationships, and we’ve brought about some creative solutions. That’s only going to continue as public awareness grows.”