As people stand up against oil and gas in neighborhoods, Anadarko says sides need to work together

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DENVER -- The future of oil and gas development is one of the most controversial issues facing Colorado. 

As more and more wells are showing up in neighborhoods, oil and gas companies are getting an earful from angry neighbors tired of the eyesores they say ruin their communities and jeopardize safety. 

While at the same time, many argue, there's a huge upside to oil and gas, and data shows the economic impacts of oil and gas production in Colorado are monumental. 

Anadarko Petroleum, the state's largest oil and gas company, is speaking out tonight at 10 p.m. only on Denver7 about how it is addressing neighbors concerns. 

Tempers ignite around oil and gas

Every conflict, no matter how big, has a trigger point. When it comes to oil and gas in Colorado, the growing opposition centers around a deadly home explosion in Firestone last year. 

Investigators traced the cause of the explosion to an uncapped flowline that had been leaking non-odorous gas into the family's home for months. The gas came from a nearby well owned by Anadarko. Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin were both killed and a flashpoint ignited as tempers flared and voices raised demanding accountability from the company.

"After Firestone, things have changed," Rep. Matt Jones said during a public meeting held by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which regulates the industry and approves any new permits. 

"People are starting to get woke," another woman said to the state board.

"This is absolutely not safe," an activist said during the same meeting.

"I feel like this town is under siege," a concerned Erie resident said during public comment at a town trustees meeting last year.

A rally cry for more regulation and less drilling near neighborhoods became the mantra. The oil and gas industry became the enemy.

For opponents, it isn't only the proximity to homes and schools they decry – nor is it solely the safety concerns. It is also the noise, and smells, and dust and trucks.

"For me it feels like a constant attack on my overall senses," said an Erie homeowner who lives in the Vista Ridge neighborhood, which had a fracking site nearby. 

Worst of all, some say, is a feeling of helplessness – the feeling that the oil industry's deep pockets are lining those of local lawmakers who are turning a blind eye to the industry’s effects on the environment and people. 

"We know who protects the industry. Who protects the people?" another Erie resident wondered at a public meeting last year.

But all this noise needs a reality check

There's no denying neighbors have valid concerns. They do. Men have died. Neighborhoods have changed.

At the same time, Mother Nature created Denver's oil and rock-rich Julesburg Basin more than 300 million years ago, and oil rigs started popping up along it in the late 1800's. 

In other words, the oil companies got there first. The neighborhoods followed and a clash was born.

Fast forward to now and Colorado's boom is pushing more and more homes into oil country.

So, who's really to blame? And is it time for the two sides to learn to work together?

Activists will tell you no way! But Anadarko sees it as the only way.

Anadarko speaks out

"We have to work together to come up with solutions to be able to develop both as a residential area and for oil and gas development," Korby Bracken, Anadarko's Health Safety and Environmental Director said in an interview with Denver7.

Bracken admits Anadarko needs to do a better job of educating the public about oil and gas.

"I will say we haven't been good in the past. I think we've been sheltered and we just continue to develop the resource. And now we have to, so we're behind," he said. 

But what impact have the vocal opponents of the industry had on the company?

"We listen to those concerns and we implement changes to our operations to address those concerns. We can't address all of them, of course," Bracken said. 

Anadarko showed Denver7 firsthand how they are addressing some of the concerns at one of its active drilling sites 8 miles north of Lochbuie.

"The loudest thing that we try to mitigate is what you hear behind us, which is the shale shakers," Bracken explained.

The shale shakers are responsible for creating the low frequency drumming noises people often complain about.

"We’ve worked really hard to enclose those shale shakers to reduce the amount of noise," he said.

Bracken also said Anadarko is using new drilling mud to cut down on odors coming from the sites.

"A product that we can blend with that material to help neutralize that odor that gets rid of that smell," he said.

Economic impacts of oil and gas in Colorado

The benefits of oil and gas production in Colorado are significant. Towns have been built, communities formed, schools funded, and the oil and gas industry supports more than 230,000 jobs. 

This accounts for 6.5 percent of Colorado’s employment, according to a recent study commissioned by the Colorado Petroleum Council. Those workers received $23 billion in wages and added $31.4 billion back into Colorado's economy. 

Anadarko said it alone supports 1,100 jobs in Colorado. For each new well Anadarko drills, Bracken said the impacted communities pocket $300,000 in local tax revenue.

"Over the last five years, Anadarko alone has spent about $10 billion in the state of Colorado," Bracken said.

As of December 2016, Colorado had 54,000 active wells, an overwhelming majority of which sat in Weld and Garfield counties.

--Technology behind the boom

The key to the oil and shale boom in Colorado is new technology known as fracking and horizontal drilling. This allows operators to produce 10 times more oil and natural gas, making drilling more profitable.

"We have good rock here in Colorado," said Bracken.

As a result, Colorado is seeing more drill rigs closer to neighborhoods.

And they're allowed to be there. Current state setback rules require new wells to be 500 feet from homes, and there is discussion of requiring them to be moved further. 

"Definitely a topic of conversation," said Bracken. "Drilling technology doesn't allow us to reach from our surface location to three miles. We're limited in how far we can reach." 

What's next?

As the opposition against oil and gas continues to grow, opponents see the solution as more local control of new drilling in neighborhoods and point to Initiative 97 -- a state ballot measure that, if proponents get enough signatures, will ask voters this November to force drill rigs out of backyards.

They want to push the setback limit for new wells to 2,500 feet – three times the current rules. 

"We've taken it into our own hands, and we're going to protect our communities and we're going to protect our homes," Initiative 97 organizer Susan Spiegel said.

"Personally, for me, in my role, I wouldn't mind having my house as close to a well as a developer would. I know it's safe," said Bracken.

The flip side of this argument is all the money Colorado will lose.

Industry groups believe initiative 97 will cost the state tens of thousands of jobs and millions, if not billions, of dollars in local tax revenue from flowing into local communities paying for things like schools and roads. 

Which means no matter which side of the argument Coloradans land on, one thing is clear: The next few months will have lasting impacts on the future of oil and gas in Colorado.

"Even if it's not in your neighborhood, this is the health of our state and this is the future of our state," said Spiegel.

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