Corey Hutchins, a journalist’s journalist reporting on journalism, wrote recently about a new online energy rag in town, Empowering Colorado. Its mission is “to provide independent, unbiased news coverage of all facets of energy development in the state.”
Mark Roberts, a 20-year journalist and media professional who’s executive director of the project, says it’s a niche that needs a $2 million investment and content that people can trust. But that amount of unbiased, non-advocacy funding is hard to come by.
And so is trust. Empowering’s “soft opening” was sponsored by Crestone Peak Resources, a driller in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. Former Governor Bill Ritter, now with Colorado State University’s Center for a New Energy Economy, was the principal presenter. The online magazine’s board and advisors consist entirely of middle age to elderly men with various roles in the energy sector.
No environmental scientists, climate scientists, medical researchers, environmental justice advocates, or parents of children living on top of Colorado’s fracking fields are included. Not even Erin Martinez, the person most affected by energy development in the state, is an advisor, even though she has much to offer related to her history with natural gas, pipes, leaks, and fires.
Her tragic experience resulted in a long-awaited National Transportation Safety Board report identifying the causes of the gas explosion that killed her husband and brother, severely burned her, traumatized her children, and destroyed her house. Martinez stated that the report’s findings were evident mere days after the catastrophe. The analysis did little to expand understanding of the underground hazards from drilling in the oil fields.
Immediately after the explosion, Governor John Hickenlooper promised underground pipe mapping across the state. Much of that work hasn’t materialized, in part because the oil and gas industry, with many abandoned wells and the corollary abandoned pipe work, doesn’t know where stuff is, and the state, with over 150 years of oil hole digging, never required drillers to provide that data.
In-depth analysis of the wells and pipes under the housing development of the Martinez residence shows why such mapping is critically important. The web of active and abandoned flow lines and wells under and surrounding homes and a public school underscores potential risk of explosions, leaks, and methane and VOC pollution. This development in the city of Firestone must have passed through zoning and other permissions, but the Anadarko leaking pipe escaped scrutiny.
Hickenlooper’s planned mapping project involved flow lines but not the gathering lines that collect larger quantities of oil and gas to send to the even larger transmission pipelines. Oil and gas companies were only able to map the start and end points of the flow lines, not where they go in between. Horizontal fracking can send pipe out for miles, with many wells on single pads, and lines in many directions wheeling off the wells.
Without mapping with documentation available to local governments responsible for permitting home building, cities and developers along the northern Front Range and stretching east into Weld County and south into Arapahoe County won’t know whether their residential developments are safe.
Further, as was reported recently, the oil and gas industry is in a world of financial hurt because energy prices are low and companies are over-leveraged. Colorado has been down this road before in the 1980s, an earlier boom that led to bust and an approximate ten-year recession-depression in the state. Only now, there will be lots more energy infrastructure underneath and above the ground that fossil fuel companies won’t clean up because they’ll be belly up, along with the cities and counties that counted on the industry’s severance and ad valorem taxes as a buffer from TABOR.
Empowering Colorado will have lots of these issues to cover. Journalism needs to get after it. Part of that work is making sure that any publication that undertakes the job is truly trustworthy and independent.
Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.