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Getty Images via Newscred

The impossible dream

The United States’ journey to becoming a global giant in the oil industry has not come without controversy, that is certain. Issues have arisen to some of those who have no association with the oil industry, but are bearing the brunt of some of its nasty side effects. On the other side of the coin, small towns—some of which we would have never heard of if it wasn’t for oil—are now the epicenter and the driving force of their respective state’s economy. Williston, North Dakota; Denton, Texas; Aurora, Colorado; St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, just to name a few. While oil is a commonality between these cities, there is one other piece they have in common as well–fracking.

Recently, the New York Times published an article talking about the city of Longmont, Colorado and the city’s struggle to fight off big oil companies. Two years ago, Longmont residents voted to ban fracking, and in July 2014, a Boulder District County Judge struck down the ban. The ban, however, would remain in effect as the city filed an appeal against the ruling. A month later, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to drop the lawsuit against Longmont. The mayor of Longmont, Brian Bagley said the dismissal of the lawsuit would “save us a lot of time, money and headaches,” and also said “that’s a distraction that’s now over and we’re thankful for that.” As a result of Hickenlooper’s decision to pull back the lawsuit, the Governor called for an 18-member task force–to be appointed by him–that would study the state’s current regulations and laws and discuss possible changes in regards to drilling. Also, four ballot initiatives, two considered pro-industry and two being put forth by Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, a group receiving financial backing from Polis, would be dropped from the 2014 ballot.

Getty Images via Newscred; Pump jack in Colorado

Getty Images via Newscred; Pump jack in Colorado

Shortly thereafter, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) unanimously agreed to drop its lawsuit against the city of Longmont but kept open the possibility that legal action against the city over its oil and gas regulations could be revived. City leaders replied by strongly urging the board to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning the lawsuit could not be re-filed in the future. “We are not going to stop the fight that you started just to have rocks thrown at us another time,” Bagley said. In mid-October, the COGCC agreed with Bagley and decided that they had run out of rocks to throw and agreed to “never sue Longmont again with a challenge to Longmont’s oil and gas ordinance.” However, that only applies to the COGCC.

After the agreement between the city of Longmont and the COGCC was made, Dave Neslin—an attorney—reviewed the agreement and came to this conclusion:

            “If an oil and gas company tries to drill in Longmont and is denied a permit from the city based on the city’s rules, the company can sue Longmont and argue that the city’s rules go too far and step on the state’s authority.”

According to Mike King, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the state isn’t eager to get involved in another lawsuit against the city of Longmont.

In November, 2014, Boulder County commissioners authorized the county attorney’s office to side with Longmont in its legal battle over the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s (COGA) challenge of the city’s voter-approved fracking ban. Also, the COGA had rulings struck down by a district court judge over voter-approved fracking bans in Lafayette and Fort Collins, Colorado. Meanwhile, in November, Boulder County extended its drilling moratorium for another three-and-a-half years, which was set to end on January 1, 2015. The moratorium is in place to put a ban on any new oil and gas development in unincorporated parts of Boulder County.

Getty Images via Newscred

Getty Images via Newscred; Longmont, Colorado

In Longmont, energy companies and fracking opponents had clashed over plans to drill near new subdivisions and a golf course. But in 2011, opposition grew widespread after residents learned of a proposal to drill near Union Reservoir, a glassy lake that reflects the mountains. By the time the November 2012 elections rolled around, the energy industry spent close to $500,000 on pro-drilling commercials and brochures. That was more than 10 times as much as anti-fracking activists had raised to pass a ban on fracking. Much more than $500,000 was at stake, however. City officials and energy companies estimate that the city of Longmont sits atop as much as $500 million in oil and gas reserves. Those reserves, for now, remain locked away.

In the previously mentioned New York Times article, Dale Bruns, a consultant for TOP Operating Company—the main oil and gas operator in Longmont, which is suing the city—said, “There’s absolutely no question that what the city did is illegal. Longmont just repeatedly shoots itself in the foot. You’ve got a bunch of people who are just adamant that fossil fuel is bad, and it’s terrible for Longmont. This minority group has fired up the public with false claims.”

According to the New York Times, the city of Longmont has spent about $136,000 fighting to defend the fracking ban. Repercussions of defending such bans are also costing towns like Broadview Heights, Ohio and Denton, Texas, who are being sued by big energy companies and associations as well.

For residents, it’s a fight worth fighting. It’s their town, it’s their livelihood. They have spoken, they have voted, but it may not be enough. For small towns like Longmont—and its residents—the battle is coming down to something they don’t have enough of, despite sitting atop a whole lot of it. Money.

Bryan Braum, former Mayor of Longmont who opposes the ban:

“It we took that same vote, I think it would come out differently. It’s cost the city a lot. It’s not just the money that it costs to defend these—it’s the opportunities and the industries it could’ve brought to our community.”

Oil-booming small towns and large oil companies coming together as one? Sounds like the impossible dream.

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