Frackers get neighborly to head off opposition in Colorado
Anadarko uses political tactics to convince voters wells are safe “My family is here. … We would know if something’s wrong”
Windsor High School junior Kamille Hocking used to worry that the dozen leased oil wells on her family’s 132acre Colorado homestead might make her sick. Then Rebecca Johnson, an engineer for Anadarko Petroleum, Colorado’s largest producer, visited Hocking’s chemistry class in early February. As the students used blenders to mix sand, friction reducer, and city water, Johnson explained how frackers use a similar solution to release gas and oil trapped in rock. “We heard a lot of stories about how it could get into the water and pollute the land,” says Hocking, 16. Now, she says, “I’m going to tell my parents that fracking fluid only makes cracks in the rock the size of a hair.”
Across Colorado, Anadarko is deploying engineers, geologists, and representatives known as landmen to Rotary Clubs, high schools, and parents groups to convince them the drilling technique doesn’t pose a threat to the environment or public health. The outreach represents a shift for Anadarko, which like many fracking companies has long insisted on confidentiality, as it tries to beat back rising public opposition to its drilling methods. “I live right here,” Johnson told Hocking’s class. “My family is here, my mother-in-law graduated from your high school. She turns 80 this year. We would know if something’s wrong.”
Anadarko is hoping its local ambassadors can help avoid more hostilities in the local war against fracking. In 2014, oil companies spent $11.8 million on lobbying after U.S. Representative Jared Polis, a Democrat, bankrolled a signature-gathering effort to put anti-fracking measures on the ballot. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, also a Democrat, worked behind the scenes for months to broker a peace, eventually creating a 21-member commission to study how to increase local control over drilling.
In January the state’s oil and gas regulator adopted several rules recommended by the commission, including one that requires energy companies to work with cities to determine the location of large-scale drilling operations. The new regulations left some residents unsatisfied. “This panel in the end didn’t serve to protect any of the citizens of Colorado,” says Tricia Olson, executive director of Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development, or Creed. “We felt the initiative process was the only way to go.”
The group has submitted 10 ballot initiatives to the state’s election office for review, including one that would give municipal governments greater power to regulate fracking in the state, the nation’s seventh-biggest oil producer and sixthlargest gas provider. Five communities have already enacted measures temporarily halting or banning fracking. Colorado’s Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on whether the measures will be allowed to stand, after a lower court found the state has authority over drilling.
Anadarko, based in The Woodlands, Texas, has trained 2,000 employees in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Texas to answer questions from the public. Noble Energy and Whiting Petroleum will sponsor industry ambassador training this year in Denver. “The oil and gas industry spent decades not educating people,” says Karen Crummy, communications director for an industrybacked political action committee that’s running pro-fracking television ads in Denver and Colorado Springs. “We do know that when most Coloradans get the facts on fracking and responsible oil and gas development, they support it.”
Not everyone walks away from Anadarko’s presentations convinced. One of its landmen, Laura Paige Cody, visited a Rotary Club in Parker, south of Denver, late last year. Mark Scheuneman, a retiree, wanted to know whether fracking could cause earthquakes or sinkholes. “I had some real concerns, and she didn’t alleviate them,” Scheuneman
said afterward. Cody is undeterred. “I’m in this business that’s being vilified,” she says, adding that fracking has helped ordinary Americans by making oil cheaper. “No matter if you’re an orthodontist, or a tennis pro, or a welder, everything you do is dependent on the price of oil.”
The bottom line Oil companies are increasing public outreach in hopes of heading off ballot measures restricting fracking in Colorado.