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As climate change increasingly impacts our daily lives, the conversation about the sources for our energy consumption is taking center stage. Further complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so-called “natural gas” has become a piece of the climate puzzle. Unfortunately, this fossil fuel is still seen as a necessary bridge fuel to truly renewable energy while hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – the method of extracting it – wreaks havoc on the climate and frontline communities.
Methane gas, the essential element of “natural gas,” is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. And while it technically burns cleaner than coal, there are many problems with its production, transportation, and combustion that cause massive pollution. Our increased dependence on methane gas, and thereby fracking, has pushed global methane emissions to record levels and is one of the most under-acknowledged causes of climate change, having caused more than 30% of global warming since the pre-industrial era. The good news is that lowering methane emissions can reduce the effects of climate change.
Fracking the System
As an environmental activist and documentary filmmaker, I have been focusing on this issue since 2017 after I read “World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” signed by 15,000 world scientists. I devoted myself to understanding this issue and began filming environmental activists focused on fracking. In the production of my forthcoming documentary, Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars, I’ve had a front row seat to the forces that push and pull on the issues of climate change.
The harms of fracking are extensive, beginning with the injection of millions of gallons of toxic fracking fluid deep into the earth, which permanently toxifies fresh water and often leads to contamination of the water table. Rigorous research shows definitive evidence of widespread fracking pollution of drinking water, harming the health of infants in Pennsylvania. When this pressurized toxic fluid is forced out of the earth, along with fossil fuels, it inevitably leaks, causing contamination of the water table, soil, and air. Despite copious amounts of research demonstrating a high correlation of severe health impacts like congenital heart defects, childhood leukemia, and asthma to those living close to fracking wells, fracking has become widespread around the world. Meanwhile, many countries and some U.S. states have banned the practice.
In the U.S., nearly 18 million people live within one mile of an oil or gas well. A disproportionately higher number of citizens who live in areas where oil and gas wells are built are Black and Latino.
Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are being felt everywhere: From a loss of biodiversity to increasing extreme weather events like wildfires, floods, droughts, rising sea levels, and hurricanes.
Grassroots Movement Takes Shape
Colorado activists began protesting fracking in 2010 after then-Gov. Bill Ritter signed the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. The bill committed to the mass transition from coal-powered electricity to gas-powered electricity in Colorado. However, since 2010, the air quality on the front range of Colorado (home to over 85% of Coloradans) has steadily gotten worse. An in-depth analysis of air pollution found that 30% to 40% of the ground level ozone and smog in Colorado was a direct result of oil and gas extraction. During the 2010s, as the “brown cloud” over Denver and the surrounding front range continued to worsen, oil and gas production in Colorado increased to record levels.
Citizen environmental activists have fought battles on every level in Colorado. First, they successfully petitioned their local governments to ban fracking within their towns. But those bans were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Several other fracking cases were fought and lost in the Colorado Supreme Court. In 2014, now-Gov. Jared Polis led a statewide ballot initiative to empower municipalities and limit fracking but he rescinded the signatures and canceled the initiative under pressure from mainstream Democrats.
In 2018, under the banner of Colorado Rising, grassroots citizen activists coalesced around Proposition 112 to increase setbacks for new fracking sites from 500 feet to 2,500 feet from occupied buildings, like homes and schools, and waterways. They raised $1 million and rallied hundreds of passionate volunteers, overcame a coordinated counter-campaign by the oil and gas industry, and succeeded in getting Proposition 112 on the 2018 ballot. During the election cycle, however, Protect Colorado, the oil and gas industry counter-campaign, spent more than $30 million to convince voters that Proposition 112 would devastate Colorado’s economy. Proposition 112 was defeated on election day. Since then, the industry’s claims of economic disaster have been debunked by an economic impact study published by Colorado Fiscal Institute, establishing only 1.8% of total wages and 0.7% of total employment rely on Colorado’s oil and gas industry.
Months after the 2018 election, SB19-181 was passed, which overhauled the state regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Unfortunately, the agency is still approving a massive number of permits and Colorado’s oil and gas industry is back to business as usual.
To save our planet from a climate collapse, we must be consistently and actively engaged in supporting the frontline environmental activist organizations who dare to stand up and lead initiatives like Proposition 112. Colorado’s anti-fracking movement has been simmering during the pandemic and a revival is on the horizon in 2024 with a new statewide ballot initiative to curb fracking and fossil fuel dependence.
Pathways for Philanthropy
Climate change affects us all, but there are different ways for donors to make an impact to ensure communities most affected are part of the solutions.
Support Grassroots Coalitions
There are several groups working toward a just transition to clean energy and fighting for healthy and livable communities.
- Safe and Healthy Colorado is a group of volunteers and grassroots organizations working to end oil and gas extraction by 2030.
- Colorado Rising is a 501(c)(c4) organization focused on community organizing, public education, climate justice, and litigation.
Fund Narrative Change and Storytelling
As a filmmaker, I am a devotee to the power of storytelling to create massive social impact. I invite donors to join me in amplifying the story of anti-fracking and climate justice activism in Colorado. By supporting work like the feature-length documentary Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars (fiscally sponsored by the Denver Film Society), we can make lasting change.
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