September 3, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Photo by Daniel de Koning
As students return to campus following a year beset by the pandemic and environmental disaster, the state of our climate has never been so dire. As noted in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published this summer, even in the lowest emissions scenario the planet will likely see 1.6 degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century compared to pre-industrial levels.
Sitting currently at about 1 degree Celsius of warming, we are already seeing many doom and gloom effects of the climate crisis in Colorado, including record-setting wildfires, unsafe air quality, drought, water shortages, and extreme heat. All the while, the state’s political leadership has been entirely unwilling to meaningfully address the crisis.
Many of the state’s short-term emissions issues center around methane emissions and hydraulic fracking. Methane, which has a far greater short-term warming effect than carbon dioxide, is a major product leaked in the process of fracking (the other major human sources are agriculture and waste decomposition).
According to a recent U.N. study, cutting human-caused methane by 45% this decade would prevent 0.3 degrees Celsius in global warming by the 2040s. But in Colorado, which is home to significant oil and gas resources, such a change of course is nowhere in sight.
Earlier this summer, Colorado’s two Democratic Senators, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, voted in favor of prohibiting the executive branch of the federal government from issuing a ban on hydraulic fracking. Bennet also supported another GOP amendment to prohibit federal methane regulations on livestock farming.
At the state level, Gov. Polis continues to issue new oil and gas permits, and his administration has yet to implement key components of a 2019 bill that redefined the mission of the state’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The state remains far off track from meeting its stated climate goals.
“Our state has so far fully abdicated its responsibility to limit the production of fossil fuels essentially in any way,” said Duncan Gilchrist, a climate policy analyst for 350 Colorado. “Our state continues with a status quo business as usual approach to permitting new oil and gas wells that continue to spew methane into the atmosphere at a time when we need to be doing the exact opposite.”
While the vast majority of Coloradans support action to address climate change, citizen efforts to limit fracking, oil, and gas have largely fallen short. One 2018 ballot measure, Proposition 112, would have required new oil and gas developments to be at least 2,500 feet from designated vulnerable areas. Following a deluge of spending by the oil and gas industry, voters rejected the measure.
“Oil and gas outspent the coalition that was behind Proposition 112 by 50 to one,” said Gilchrist. “It’s easy to see why it failed.”
But the difficulties in curbing methane emissions extend beyond just the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry. Many Coloradans living in lower income, rural parts of the state rely on the industry for their livelihoods, even as these communities are exposed to health impacts and environmental degradation from fossil fuel extraction.
Colorado College Associate Professor of Business Kat Miller-Stevens, who runs the school’s State of the Rockies Project, is researching policy debates around fracking in the Rocky Mountain states. Along with several student fellows, Miller-Stevens has been reviewing public testimony for a Colorado climate bill passed in 2019.
While much of the testimony focused on the environmental, health, and climate impacts from fracking, “a number of individuals from low-income communities praised the oil and gas industry for giving them the opportunity to make money and move out of their current cycle of poverty,” Miller-Stevens noted in an email. “Many of these individuals noted a lack of educational opportunities (i.e. they aren’t able to afford college), and their jobs with the oil and gas industry changed their lives for the better.”
By any account, cutting emissions while supporting fossil fuel workers will be no easy task. As the climate crisis accelerates, however, there is little choice in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences. As political leaders fail to meet the challenge, the burden of action falls upon community organizers and activists to advocate for a livable future for all in Colorado.
“The climate crisis demands that we transform every last one of the systems that are at the core of our society, from our electricity, to our transportation, to how we heat our homes and buildings, to how we produce our food and how we dispose of our waste,” said Gilchrist.
“It can be really daunting to think about a future that’s only going to continue to destabilize. But the antidote to that feeling of despair is taking action.”