Paonia facing energy development … again. ~ High Country News

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Ten thousand feet up, it’s possible to see the whole North Fork Valley from Dan Stucker’s plane. As the aircraft glides over sloping mesas with snow-dusted mountains, the land below resembles a vintage pioneer landscape.

If President Donald Trump has his way, a new feature could arrive on this vista: oil and gas pumps. His administration is opening vast stretches of public land to energy companies, and among the forests and fields under Stucker’s plane, up to 95 percent of the valley could be available to drillers.

The administration’s new policies would bring sweeping changes to this Rocky Mountain landscape, facilitated by a growing bond between federal officials and the oil and gas industry. Emails and other communications between government employees obtained by E&E News reveal directives and orders by Trump officials to shelve environmental policies to speed energy development.

In one instance, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke courted oil and gas drillers in private by assuring them that changes to federal land policy would make their companies more profitable.

Documents show that some career employees in the Bureau of Land Management questioned whether drillers were being penalized adequately for major violations of environmental regulations. Interior Department staffers also pushed back on efforts by political appointees to put federal land up for auction before scientific assessments on the potential damage drilling could inflict on wildlife were finished.

At other times, federal officials voiced concern that Trump’s drilling goals were more aggressive than oil industry wishes. One federal official was asked whether it would be possible to rejigger data to make it look like the government would sell more leases because she was worried about how companies’ lack of interest in drilling would look to administration bigwigs, according to an email E&E News obtained.

These policies will set the nation on a future course of reliance on fossil fuels that cause climate change, more air and water pollution in rural areas, and new threats to endangered species. In return, the government charges oil companies as little as $2 per acre to lease the land for drilling.

Pilot Dan Stucker says he supports oil drilling on the region’s public lands.
Morgan Levy for Reveal

Once a coal town, Paonia, Colorado, has transformed itself over the past few decades. It’s now known for wineries, boutiques, galleries and organic farms that draw tourists from nearby ski resorts. Perhaps most symbolic of its economic conversion, the town now hosts a major company, Solar Energy International, that trains solar panel technicians.

But Paonia’s shift away from its fossil fuel roots could be reversed under the Trump administration’s new policies.

Stucker, the pilot, represents the more traditional side of this region. He said his family arrived here on covered wagons in 1893. Dutch people, then Coloradans. That’s how they distinguish things in this valley — you’re either a fifth-generation son of the Western Slope like Stucker, or you’re an organic-farming hippie. Waves of them came in the 1970s.

“I have friends who are liberals and what I love about that is we have wonderful arguments,” said Stucker, a self-described libertarian who favors drilling here. “I do not want us to become Boulder, where you have to get permission to screw a lightbulb in.”

Leasing vast acreage to oil companies

Trump feels the same way.

The president’s plans to expand fossil fuels seem as boundless as the tracts of wilderness below. He wants to open millions of acres across the West, all owned by taxpayers, to private oil and gas companies. Last year alone, his administration put 11.9 million acres on the auction block. It was the most in nine years. In sheer size, that’s twice as big as Vermont.

Colorado’s North Fork Valley is now destined to become part of that statistic. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management announced it would offer 7,903 acres in the valley to drillers in December.

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Initiative 97 signature gatherer Kimmy Fry speaks a person in Civic Center Park while protesters lurk behind her with their signs.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

Here’s how heated the battle over oil and gas development has become in Colorado: Protesters follow people collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure to limit drilling. They carry banners with counter-messages and urge people not to sign petitions

Some people call it harassment. Others say it’s fair game under the First Amendment.

Anti-fracking coalition Colorado Rising for Health and Safety began gathering signatures for Initiative 97 in April. If it reaches the ballot and wins approval with voters, the buffer between homes and new drilling would increase to 2,500 feet — five times the current limit.

Colorado Rising has until Aug. 6 to gather 98,000 valid signatures.

There’s little wonder why the oil and gas industry opposes the measure. A recent studyfrom state regulators found it would make 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado off-limits to drilling.

The group first raised complaints about protesters dogging its circulators over a month ago. Just recently, Colorado Rising believes it learned how the protesters might be finding them.

Colorado Rising volunteer Anne Lee Foster said an anonymous employee at Anadarko Petroleum shared an internal document. It appears to ask employees to report when they see Initiative 97 canvassers. The letter includes an email address and a text message hotline.

Brian Loma, who helps run the signature campaign for Colorado Rising, showed CPR News what can happen when someone — in this case him — reports the location of a signature gatherer. As he stood in Denver’s Civic Center Park, he gave away their location.

“So, now we are going to say ‘food trucks by the Capitol,’” he said as he punched away at a text on his phone.

Kimmy Fry, a petite 19-year-old with pixie haircut and a fanny pack with a built-in speaker system, was one of the paid signature gatherers working that day. She said the chosen location was good territory. It had no shortage of people she could approach as they got lunch from food trucks during the annual Civic Center Eats showcase.

The protestors that arrived to trail signature gatherers in Civic Center Park were not bashful about keeping a close proximity to interactions with the public.

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