Weld County: ground zero in the anti-fracking battle

In the last election, four Colorado cities voted to ban hydraulic fracking: Boulder, Broomfield, Loveland, and Fort Collins. Anti-fracking proponents promise to take their campaign statewide. Self-described ‘fractivist’ Shawn Davis stated “This is not an anti-fracking fight anymore, it’s a civil rights movement. Our civil rights to safety and protection have been taken away from us.” Davis represents organizations like Sierra Club, which oppose all fossil fuels, including natural gas. Anti-fracking bans have been enacted in New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, and in 400 cities around the country.

The battle is between groups who would ban fracking and those who support state regulation of the industry. Six states have enacted regulation of hydraulic fracking: California, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming. A seventh state, Alaska, will consider the legislation in the current session.

The battle is being waged at the federal as well as state level. U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced legislation to allow states to regulate hydraulic fracking, and prevent duplicative federal regulation. U.S. Representative Bill Flores (R-Texas) has led this effort in the House. H.R. 2728, which passed the House last week, prohibits the Department of Interior from imposing any hydraulic fracking regulations or guidance in any state that has already issued its own regulations. President Obama has promised to veto that legislation.

A bipartisan bill which sets new state regulations on hydraulic fracking passed the Colorado Legislature and was supported by Governor John Hickenlooper. The measure has the support of environmental groups as well as the oil and gas industry in Colorado, but it has been attacked by Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colorado) who represents the cities that have passed fracking bans.

It is not hard to understand why Weld County is at the center of this battle over hydraulic fracking in Colorado. Weld County is the largest producer of oil and gas in the state, with 15,000 wells producing more than 10 million barrels of oil annually. Revenue from oil and gas now accounts for more than half of all Weld County revenues. If anti-fracking groups are successful in halting hydraulic fracking in Colorado, a major source of investment and jobs in Weld County and other rural counties dependent on the oil and gas industry will be wiped out.

In the last election, eleven rural Colorado counties asked voters if their county commissioners should explore secession and formation of a 51st state. Six of these counties voted to pursue secession; and, while the measure failed narrowly in Weld County, commissioners there have promised to continue to address the rural/urban conflict that has emerged in Colorado.

Anti-fracking is only the most recent source of conflict between rural and urban counties in Colorado over a broad set of policies impacting economic growth and demographic change. Weld County has pursued a pro-growth strategy with minimum regulation and low taxes, designed to promote business investment and jobs. Over the past decade, Weld County has experienced a rapid growth in output and employment, with a high rate of in migration.

In contrast, urban front-range counties have pursued so called ‘smart growth’ policies designed to limit economic growth and population increase. For example, over the past decade, Boulder County has lost 19 thousand residents due to out migration, roughly twice the number of in migrants. Boulder now relies on 70,000 employees who commute into the county to work, roughly the same number of employees who live and work in the county. ‘Smart growth’ policies in Boulder have driven the average price of homes in excess of a million dollars. Boulder has emerged as a wealthy enclave, similar to ski towns, in which workers have been disenfranchised. The middle class in Boulder is not disappearing; it has been displaced to Weld County and other rural counties with a lower cost of living.

As state and federal policies and regulations are increasingly dominated by urban elites, rural economies in Colorado are being undermined. Over the past two decades, income per capita and standards of living in Weld County and other rural counties have fallen further behind that of the urban counties along the front-range. State and federal regulations that limit hydraulic fracking will cause even further deterioration in income and standards of living in Weld County and other rural counties dependent on the oil and gas industry.

Barry W. Poulson, Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado Boulder; Past Commissioner to Colorado Tax Commission; Member of Taskforce to Reform PERA (2005). This article first appeared on Forbes.com

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