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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd

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Boulder

Sep 17, 2018

“Frack”-tured Community: Colorado Plans to Alter the Future of Natural Gas Drilling

The grassroots initiative, which Boulder voters will see on the ballot come November, would mandate a state-wide, half-mile “buffer zone” of fracking wells from occupied buildings.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Hydraulic fracturing, known colloquially as “fracking”, has been controversial since it became the widespread method of shale gas production over the past decade. The technique involves pumping millions of gallons of highly-pressurized water and chemicals into deep shale formations to proliferate cracks and free gas for extraction. On Colorado’s crowded Front Range, where land is a premium, active wells operate within arm’s reach of houses, schools, and other occupied structures.

Fracking proponents say that the practice has drastically increased U.S. natural gas production, lowered energy prices, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions via displacing coal burning in electricity generation. Opponents of fracking cite many potential health and environmental hazards of the practice including methane leakage, groundwater contamination, radioactive wastewater, and well fires.

significantly more likely to have a low birth-weight baby

According to Colorado Rising, a grassroots non-profit committed to exposing fracking’s health and safety concerns, fracking’s toll on public health outweighs the economic benefits. Research from the Colorado Public School of Health indicates that proximity to fracking operations poses serious risks to health and safety. Among these risks include exposure to cancer-causing toxins such as benzene and air pollutants. An analyses of public health research at the University of Chicago examined correlation between prenatal health and proximity to fracking wells and found that mothers living within a half-mile radius of active wells were significantly more likely to have a low birth-weight baby than mothers who lived farther away. This half-mile radius, incidentally, is the amount of buffer the ballot proposition would require.

The research is preliminary, however, as it cannot definitively prove point-source contamination. To date, no double-blind studies have ever linked fracking directly to low birth weights. But according to spokesperson Anne Lee Foster of Colorado Rising, “Weld County is the most fracked county (host to over 23,000 wells) and has twice the still-born rate of other Colorado counties”. She claims the spike in still-borns occurred in 2009, after a 2008 influx in natural gas drilling. But the list of environmental hazards does not end with carcinogens. The Colorado Rising report also condemns fracking’s environmental toll. Their briefing states that because of methane leakage, “…fracking, transporting and burning natural gas for electricity is likely as bad as or worse for climate change than coal or oil”. The jury is still out on this claim. Granted, fracking is energy-intensive and petrochemical-dependent, but burning natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as burning oil or gasoline. Methane leakage in drilling and pipeline transportation is minor, though Colorado Gas & Oil industry officials and public health activists like Colorado Rising disagree on the amount and impact of leakage.

Despite its controversy, there are approximately 50,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, many of them concentrated in Boulder and Weld Counties. Under current legislature, fracking operations can take place 500 feet from an occupied home and 1,000 feet from a school building.

do Colorado residents share Foster’s precautionary mindset, or are the economic gains too good to forgo?

Public demand for an expanded mandatory buffer zone from occupied buildings compounded after a 2017 incident in which an open gas line from an operating well leaked into a Firestone home, causing an explosion that killed two. Colorado Rising wrangled over 172,000 signatures for their “Safer Setbacks from Fracking” initiative, which was subsequently approved for November’s ballot. The regulation would underscore the burgeoning research on detrimental public health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing—research that Colorado’s oil and gas industry might call inchoate and inconclusive. It would increase the mandatory buffer zone between oil and gas wells and occupied buildings to 2,500 feet—a move that the Colorado Petroleum Council has deemed “job-killing” and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has said risks “more than $1 billion in taxes for schools, parks, and libraries, and our nation’s energy security”. And Weld County, situated on potent shale, has benefited from the incursion of jobs and money brought by the industry’s presence in the area.

The future of Colorado’s oil and gas sector is up in the air, and the proposed initiative would significantly reduce the amount of viable drilling land in populated regions of the state. As Anne Lee Foster summarizes, “the general consensus is that negative health impacts are possible, and it’s best to err on the side of caution”. November’s vote will tap into the metaphorical shale deposits of public sentiment towards fracking; do Colorado residents share Foster’s precautionary mindset, or are the economic gains too good to forgo?

Special thanks to Anne Lee Foster, who was interviewed for this piece. The Colorado Oil and Gas Board did not respond to request for commentary.

Cover photo courtesy of Brett Rindt.

Resources and Further Reading: A Denver Post report on fire and gas explosions, political commentary by Colorado Politics, a public health report by Colorado Rising, The Colorado Rising website, A Popular Mechanics article on 10 Most Controversial Claims About Natural Gas Drilling, A New York Times article,

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Environment

Mar 22, 2019

Youth Climate Strike Goes Global

On March 15th, 1.4 million students in 128 countries boycotted classrooms to rally for climate change. Their message: "Decarbonize, NOW."

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

There is perhaps no better example of the complexity of our relationship with science than in the present discourse on climate change. It is, after all, science that gave us the knowledge to extract oil, coal, and natural gas from the earth and harness from their potent molecules the energy to power our cars, homes, and civilizations. The “fossil fuels”, that pantheon of concentrated carbons, have provisioned us with luxuries unimaginable a century ago. They’ve lifted millions of people out of poverty, fed countless hungry children, and erected the infrastructure that bulwarks the modern world. We burn them to transport ourselves across oceans and to the grocery store. By all accounts, the application of science to fossil fuels has resulted in unprecedented progress.

Of course, as most modern scientists, businesspeople, politicians, and kindergarten students can avow, the carbon narrative is not so simple. In fact, “carbon”, an unassuming element with six protons in its nucleus, has become a four-letter-word invoking extractive industry, toxic pollution, and gluttonous capitalism. In an expanding body of scientific research, observers have documented the rising sea levels, erratic weather events, and general planetary imbalance resulting from our injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One striation of scientific ingenuity graced us with a potent source of energy; another damns its overuse. Those committed to a system sustained by fossil fuels champion the best science of yesterday. If the best possible science of today advises opposition to the status quo, our response as individuals and societies reveals our relationship with science. If we don’t heed the sirens of climate change, we are “deniers of science”. It’s difficult to get behind science that prescribes a radical overhaul in lifestyle when fossil fuel science has been doling out apparently limitless comforts. We should also remember that last century, science offered up oil and natural gas as cleaner alternatives to “dirty” coal. But with 97% of climate experts in agreement that fossil-fuel use is causing global climate change, the scientific pendulum has swung again, and we must respond in turn. Perhaps our acquired comforts have made us complacent; as of 2019, we have failed to slash emissions to the targets espoused by our most qualified scientists.

Climate strike in London. Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr.

Winston Churchill, in a 1936 essay entitled “Fifty Years Hence”, addressed our vacillatory relationship with science. His warning, made in the context of burgeoning communism in the Soviet Union, resounds with global aptitude in the contemporary context of climate change:

“There are too many people maintained, not merely in comfort but in existence, by processes unknown a century ago, for us to afford even a temporary check, still less a general setback, without experiencing calamity in its most frightful form.” -Winston Churchill

As he concludes his essay, Churchill calls for precaution and moral sensibility in our pursuit of science:

“After all, this material progress, in itself so splendid, does not meet any of the real needs of the human race…forces terrific and devastating will be in their [our immediate descendants] hands; comforts, activities, amenities, pleasures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.”

It is necessary to expand the scope of Churchill’s prophecy to account for the ubiquity of the modern problem: “…their planet will be barren, if they have not a vision above material things.” Fossil fuels saddled us with the comforts, activities, amenities, and pleasures of the late 20th and early 21st century: air conditioning, cars, coffee, and capital. But now it is the voices of youth raised above the cacophony of a billion combustion engines who demand the change prescribed by climate science.

They aren’t “too cool for school”—rather, as the students propound, it’s getting too warm for school.

They are led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Stockholm, Sweden, who sat with a sign on her local parliament steps for the first three weeks of school demanding of her politicians a radical stance against anthropogenic climate change. Since August of 2018, she has attended classes four times a week and went on strike every Friday, initiating the now-global “Fridays for Future” movement. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren from the EU and Australia traded algebra for advocacy and joined Thunberg at the end of the school week in a demonstration. One such event galvanized over 35,000 people. They aren’t “too cool for school”—rather, as the protestors propound, it’s getting too warm for school.

Climate strike in London. Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr.

Last December, TOJ spoke to Marlow Baines, a high school student in Boulder, Colorado who is a regional crew director at the youth-based environmental advocacy group Earth Guardians. The non-profit is involved in the Juliana vs. USA climate change lawsuit, in which the youth plaintiffs have asserted a constitutional right to a habitable environment and injurious abridgement of that right by a federal subsidy of fossil fuels. Baines says that since we last spoke, the plaintiffs have filed for a preliminary injunction in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. To tease apart the judicial jargon, this is a court order that would prevent the federal government from issuing new leases and mining permits for extracting coal on federal public lands, leases for offshore oil and gas exploration, and approvals for new fossil fuel infrastructure. According to Baines, the motion for preliminary injunction will give the court an opportunity to mitigate exploitation of Public Trust resources while it considers the Juliana case on interlocutory appeal.

Marlow Baines, regional crew director for Earth Guardians.

Another term plucked from the annals of the judiciary, an interlocutory appeal is issued when the trial judge determines substantial discrepancy over an important question of law that would affect the final outcome of the case. For Juliana vs. USA, the legal questions being challenged are assertions of “specific injury” by climate change, the extent of the public trust doctrine, and the “constitutional right” to a “stable climate system capable of sustaining human life”. If dissent muddies even the premise of the climate change lawsuit, the case has little chance of being heard in court.

“Democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance…smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes.” -Winston Churchill

With the lawsuit locked up in legal purgatory, Baines and the Earth Guardians took a page from Thunberg’s book and organized a youth climate strike on March 15th in Boulder, Colorado. The event was one of 950 registered strikes in over a hundred countries in which hundreds of thousands of youth boycotted class to fight for an uncertain future. The Boulder locale focused on demands for 100% renewable energy, which was one of governor-elect Jared Polis’s key campaign pledges. Globally, the effort prioritized indigenous groups and ethnic minorities, who are among the most vulnerable demographics. American demonstrators called for ambitious entreatments such as compulsory education on climate change in grades K-8 and the declaration of a national emergency in response to the climate crisis. Given the partisan nature of the topic, these ultimatums will face at least as much pushback as the Juliana lawsuit.

Fridays for Future rally in Germany. Photo by Jorg Farys via Flickr.

“Why should we go to class if you won’t listen to our most educated scientists?”

Why are young people ostensibly more receptive to the realities of climate science? Historically, it’s taken the outcry of a generation poised to confront the consequences of a problem to galvanize action to address the problem. Human myopia is limitless, but time and tide wait for no man. That worn proverb is remarkably applicable to the context of rising sea levels. Also, climate change departs from previous problems in its scale and complexity; it seems preposterous that humanity has subsumed the power to alter entire planetary systems. But the prognosis hits home when you’re young enough to experience the cataclysmic effects of such imbalance.

Fridays for Future rally in Berlin. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

“The changes have been so sudden and so gigantic that no period in history can be compared with the last century. The past no longer enables us even dimly to measure the future.” Churchill’s remark could be severed from its subject—the pace of scientific progress in the 20th century—and neatly reapplied to the erraticism of an over-carbonated climate system. While the March 15th protests were the largest manifestation of the climate change coalition to date, it will take the adults currently in positions of power to implement appropriate policy. Our sitting president has been criticized for his “childish behavior”, but such assertions are a disservice to the children of the climate change movement. Should his administration align itself with scientific consensus, they may yet preserve climatic configurations conducive to the life and liberty of the nation’s youngest citizens.

An Earth Guardians youth climate rally back in Oregon in 2018.

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