Longmont city limit sign
Longmont’s citizens voted in favour of a fracking ban, 60% to 40%, in 2012
After five towns in Colorado voted to ban fracking in 2012, it seemed the tide had turned against the process. But two years on, it’s a very different story.

Colorado is one of the crucial “swing states” that will determine if control of the US Senate passes to Republicans during next week’s mid-term elections.

But the most contentious issue of all – what to do with the state’s vast oil and gas resources – has been deemed too radioactive for a vote during this election.

At a packed hearing in Denver, Colorado, hundreds of concerned citizens have crammed into a small room, waiting their turn to speak for just three minutes in favour of or against fracking – the controversial method of oil and gas extraction.

Stuffed rams, goats and deer dot the walls – a nod to Colorado’s long history of both embracing its natural resources and profiting from them.

Some attendees wear green stickers that say “oil and gas feed my family and yours” – while others walk up to the podium armed with slideshows and reams of health studies claiming worrying links between fracking and ozone emissions.

A handwritten sign on the door stands testament to just how contentious this issue has become.

“No placards, no applause, no side conversations,” it cautions.

It’s an attempt to make an explosive issue a little less flammable.

Jan LaitosFracking bans might violate the US constitution, says law professor Jan Laitos

All eyes on Denver

“The economic benefits are really important, and they’re important to ensuring that we have a healthy vibrant state” – Tisha SchullerColorado Oil and Gas Association

Over the summer, two ballot measures introduced by Jared Polis, the Democratic representative from Boulder, would have allowed citizens to vote next week on whether or not to ban fracking.

However, fearing the measure could negatively impact the party’s chances of keeping a desperately needed Senate seat, Democrats created a last-minute compromise – a regulatory commission.

So instead of being decided at the ballot box, the future of fracking in Colorado is instead being weighed here at this panel via the regulatory commission.

And the testimony of the hundreds who have gathered here are not just being watched by the stuffed moose on the walls, but also by regulators and state agencies across the US.

That is because the crucial issue at the heart of oil and gas development here – who controls what’s in the ground – is a battle that is being waged across the US, from North Dakota to Pennsylvania and other states that have benefited from the fracking boom.

“Colorado seems to be on the front lines of this question of how does the law impact the ability to regulate fracking,” Jan Laitos, a law professor at the University of Denver School of Law, tells me.

At heart is who gets to control the minerals in the ground – cities, states or even the federal government.

tisha Schuller
Tisha Schuller says fracking has created 150,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state Boom times

What is beyond dispute is that the fracking boom has significantly helped Colorado recover from the worst of the US recession.

“There is no reason on God’s green earth that heavy industry should encroach on neighbourhoods where people live, work and play”

Kay FissingerOur Longmont group

Tisha Schuller, the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, says oil and gas money has contributed $1.6bn (£1bn) to Colorado’s economy and created 40,000 direct and 110,000 indirect jobs.

“The economic benefits are really important, and they’re important to ensuring that we have a healthy vibrant state,” she says.

Oil and gas now contribute nearly 11% to Colorado’s total economic output.

That is why an unlikely coalition of people – from oil and gas workers, to local school districts who have been able to withstand the recession due to oil revenues, and even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued the industry provides jobs – have supported continued drilling.

As one of those who spoke at the hearing – the majority of whom supported more fracking – summed it up: “We are so blessed as a country to be living right now on a lake of oil.”

Kaye FissingerKaye Fissinger spearheaded the campaign to ban fracking in Longmont, Colorado

A different lakeYet just an hour north, a very different lake has spurred the opposite sentiment.

Longmont, Colorado was one of five towns that voted to ban fracking in 2012.

Residents voted 60% to 40% in favour of a ban after they found out that fracking could happen around the town’s reservoir – a popular spot for dog walkers and paddle boarders.

“We’ve leased our minerals twice, and that’s gone a long way towards paying for our hay”

Michelle SmithFarmer

Kaye Fissinger, who spearheaded the fight as the leader of the Our Longmont group, says she became outraged when she found out the town was planning to allow fracking within 150ft (45m) of the reservoir, which could one day be used for drinking water.

“There is no reason on God’s green earth that heavy industry should encroach on neighbourhoods where people live, work and play,” she says, gesturing to the shady picnic tables dotting the banks of the still lake.

But despite the best efforts of Kaye and others, Longmont’s bans – and those like it – have been overturned by courts this summer.

Although they have vowed to press on, Prof Laitos says that outright bans are unlikely to stick.

“The United States constitution actually prevents any government entity, whether it’s the state or local government, from imposing a flat ban because the flat ban may in fact trigger a protection in the United States constitution called the takings clause, which essentially prevents a government from taking private property, that is to say the oil and gas, without paying just compensation,” he says.

GoatDrought has seen the cost of animal feed such as hay rise significantly for Colorado’s farmers

Crucial revenueOne of those private property owners is Michelle Smith, who says that this is the issue that most anti-fracking campaigners do not understand.

If a ban were to go into effect, she says that billions of dollars would have to be paid out to mineral rights owners like her and her husband, Mark.

As the owners of the Goaty Girl farm, where they raise 35 very hungry goats, 150 chickens, and cattle, the money generated from their oil revenues is crucial to keeping the business afloat.

“Mineral rights are extremely important to us because in the West over the last several years we’ve experienced extreme drought and the price of hay has tripled,” Michelle tells me as she goes about the morning chores, milking goats and trimming alfalfa.

“So we’ve leased our minerals twice, and that’s gone a long way towards paying for our hay,” she says.

“It’s like Christmas in the mail, it’s wonderful to go to the mailbox and there’s that cheque that you honestly did nothing for.”

Michelle Smith and goatsMichelle Smith says she would welcome fracking on her farm

Embracing frackingLooking out at the vast browned acres of land around her, she says she is hopeful that the commission signalled a turning point in the debate over fracking in Colorado.

I ask her if she would really be happy with a drilling rig on her property – an almost impossibly picturesque scene of the American West.

“Oh absolutely, we would welcome it with arms wide open,” she says.

For now, it seems that more and more Coloradans have become willing to give fracking that warm embrace.

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