A Look at Fracking: Documentary Explores Environmental Consequences of Gas Extraction Method
If you own land in Colorado, your rights could end a few feet from the surface.
"Split Estate," a new documentary by filmmaker Debra Anderson, explores the boom in drilling by oil and gas companies on privately owned land in the Rocky Mountain states in recent years. Anderson discovered U.S. law favors those who hold mineral rights over landowners.
"I could not believe that an energy company could come in on land that you own and drill at will without your permission, as close as 150 feet from your front door," said Anderson, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based filmmaker who grew up in Boulder and graduated from Fairview High School in 1982.
In Colorado, state law gives power of use to mineral rights owners, too.
"As long as someone has the mineral interest, then Colorado common law gives them the right to the reasonable use of the surface," said Kim Sanchez, planning division manager for Boulder County. "That's where we get into issues because oftentimes, when the (oil and gas company) owns the mineral interests the surface owner may not even be aware that someone else has those rights on their property."
More specifically, "Split Estate" details the oil and gas industry's controversial method of extracting minerals, called "fracking," and the adverse health effects many people claim they have suffered because of the drilling method.
Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process that includes injecting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals underground in order to release the desired oil or gas. According to the film, fracking was first developed in the 1940s by Haliburton, the energy-services company whose former CEO was Dick Cheney.
"Split Estate" premieres at 6 p.m. Saturday during Discovery's Reel Impact series on Planet Green. It will repeat at 9 p.m. Oct. 22.
The film includes several interviews with people who have suffered significant health problems after oil and gas companies began drilling on or near their land. The affected families speculate that toxic chemicals used in fracking, or natural gas released during the drilling, leaked into their water supply and led to their illnesses. Oil and gas firms say such assertions are unproven.
Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resource Defense Council, said air quality has been negatively affected due to increased drilling in recent years, too.
"In the Denver-metro area it's become an issue with ozone which is harmful to human health," Mall said.
Much of "Split Estate" was shot in Rifle, Colo., and Garfield County commissioners there delayed a decision on proposed fracking legislation last month so they could view the film and take more time to explore the issue.
Closer to home, Weld County, east of Boulder County, is the second-busiest county in Colorado for drilling nowadays, according to statistics from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. More than 3,200 permits for new drilling in Weld County were filed during the past 20 months.
In Boulder County, there are roughly 270 currently producing wells, according to the COGCC. Most are in the northeastern part of the county. That's because the Wattenberg Field, the country's sixth-largest underground deposit of natural gas, stretches into that corner of the county.
Roughly 115 oil and gas wells are currently operating on Boulder County Open Space.
"Quite a bit of the land that we have purchased in the eastern part of the county had oil and gas leases on it when we purchased the land, which means oil and gas companies have a right to drill there," said Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County Parks and Open Spaces.
Stewart said county officials work with the oil and gas companies to try and mitigate environmental impacts the drilling process may have, especially on the agriculture that typically surrounds the drill sites.
Fracking is largely unregulated on a federal level. Critics point to the Bush-Cheney administration's decision to exempt fracking from Environmental Protection Agency oversight in the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 2005. Oil and gas companies do not have to disclose which chemicals they use during fracking.
In the past, oil and gas companies have argued against regulation of the chemicals used in fracking, saying that there is no hard evidence of contamination and that new regulations would force a cutback in drilling, reduce domestic sources of oil and gas and hurt the U.S. economy.
Legislation introduced into Congress in June by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and co-sponsored by Jared Polis (D-Colo.) seeks to close the fracking loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"Families, communities and local governments are upset that the safety of their water has been compromised by a special interest exemption," Polis said in a press release. "It is irresponsible to stand by while innocent people are getting sick because of an industry exemption that Dick Cheney snuck in to our nation's energy policy. Many new sources of energy, including natural gas, will play an important role in our nation's transition to cleaner fuels, but we must make sure this isn't at the expense of public health."