Huerfano Awakens, Jeff Briggs talk at Colorado Community Rights conference on Aug 18,2015:
The extractive energy industry has been dominant in Huerfano County since the 19th century when deep coal mines began to dot its landscape. Controversy, pollution, tragedy has dogged its steps along with the industry's contribution to the local economy providing a mottled experience to the county's small, diverse population of around 7,000. The Coalfield Wars, which were written about by former Sen. George McGovern, the Ludlow Massacre, deep CO2 wells drilled by ARCO in the 1980's, and the recent poisoning of our aquifers by Petroglyph Industries from their coalbed methane operations in this century—all inform our history. So we in Huerfano are not strangers to the ambiguity of this country's energy economy. But when Shell Oil proposed a deep exploration well, called the Klikus for its absentee landowner, which would be fracked two miles west of La Veta, Huerfano County's most scenic town, they drilled into a critical mass of opposition. The visceral threat of direct impacts to water and air and the realization that Shell had been buying up hundreds of thousands of acres for mineral leasing across the entire county promised eminent large scale development throughout, and galvanized the formation of Citizens for Huerfano County to challenge Shell's game. Thus began a long period of education, legal cases, and continual, unending work fighting for our general health and quality of life. Along the way we as a group began to learn that the game was rigged in favor of our corporate adversaries in several ways. Archaic laws such as the Mining Law of 1872 and the scourge of split estate most egregiously flout common property law, not to mention community rights to health and safety, to give extractive industries legal right to supersede any community action local, state, or federal. They are aided by so-called regulatory agencies like the COGCC whose members are majority supported by the oil and gas industry and by politicians at all levels beholden to extractive industry money. We found that even the courts were compromised by legal doctrines that narrowly rule on who has legal standing to protest oil and gas invasions,and that due process for a citizen's right to life, liberty and property as guaranteed by the 14th amendment to the US Constitution can be so narrowly defined as to make due process fights meaningless. When we began this fight, our county commissioners joined Shell and the COGCC against CHC in our court case against the Klikus Well. Now the discourse has changed. CHC first delayed Shell's intention to drill the Klikus in 2011 which then led to its abandonment in 2013 possibly due to both the drop in natural gas prices and the realization that a well two miles west of La Veta stimulated too much opposition. Shell switched their focus to the creation of two huge federal units in the north part of Huerfano County to develop oil wells in 2013 to exploit the high price for oil at that time. Altho Shell was able to drill one well, which was fracked, it produced only 13 barrels of oil in a 24 hour period rendering it commercially defunct. All other activity including the drilling of the discovery wells for the federal units has been put on hold after CHC challenged the legality of the formation of the federal units. Our objections center on who should have legal standing to challenge such units and also to attack them for evading environmental protection law. The 2005 energy act gutted NEPA laws requiring environmental asessments on extractive energy leases by disquising federal units as mere administrative entities. CHC gained its greatest success to date by challenging Shell's appeal to the state engineer's office seeking a blanket non-tributary water designation for its oil wells in the two federal units. Water law in Colorado is most intricate. If you have a non-tributary water designation—you own that water and can do with it mostly what you want. However, if the water source is declared tributary you must augment the volume of that water back to the tributary water system. A tributary ruling by the State Engineer's office several years ago compromised oil and gas operations to such an extent that Petroglyph was forced to abandon production of its coalbed methane wells in Huerfano. And this time around, perhaps the first time for deep fracked oil wells in Colorado, the State Engineer ruled against Shell and with CHC to declare water to be tributary-- essentially for all wells proposed in the federal units and possibly Huerfano county due to our unique geology of vertical dikes and disrupted sedimentary layers of mountains, valleys, and hills.
I say the discourse has changed because we have consistently argued our case for the health and safety of Huerfano County's citizens and the protection of life forms in its environment. The county commissioners have changed and now respectfully listen when we raise concerns. We no longer have a Local Government Designee that refuses to notify citizens of oil and gas activity. The county has replaced him with someone who takes her job seriously in communicating all new energy activity. Also, CHC now has around 600 members who mostly live in county. Additionally, we are engaged with the local high schools providing money for scientific programs and college scholarships. And as we have connected deeper with our community we were gifted a five acre wetlands area within the town of La Veta which we hope to make publicly available as a park and part of a trails system along the Cuchara River. But we are under no illusion that all is 'well'. As long as such laws as split estate are still on the books, as long as the only legal option is to 'regulate' questionable industrial activity, we will always be in an unequal struggle with the extractive, corporate, energy industry. With any of our successes we recognize that all we are doing is making it more difficult for companies to extract minerals. We can delay, divert, and engage and we will continue to do so but all of that doesn't get to the fundamental problem. We must change constitutional law so that civil rights trump corporate property rights. That is why the Board of Directors of Citizens for Huerfano County supports Colorado's community rights network for the placing of a community rights initiative on the ballot for 2016. Yet even if that effort is successful we all will be faced with a huge ongoing task: to educate people to stand up for their health and safety, to convince law makers that human rights supersede money, to challenge ourselves and others to engage in real work that makes our communities sustainable.