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A Local Erie Ruling May Indicate a Statewide Shift Away From Fossil Fuels

A Local Erie Ruling May Indicate a Statewide Shift Away From Fossil Fuels


The drilling continues in Coyote Trails

It was late spring of 2023 and David Frank was doing routine reviews of permits filed near Erie when he stumbled across something strange. Extraction Oil and Gas had filed seven new permits to drill at Coyote Trails, a site the community believed had finished drilling. 

Frank, who was the Town of Erie’s energy and environmental programs specialist at the time, reached out to the Energy and Carbon Management Commission (ECMC) to see what they planned on doing. 

This was the first time that one of the about 4,900 drilling projects that were approved in Colorado between 2009 and 2021 attempted to resume drilling on a project since Senate Bill 19-181 sweepingly overhauled drilling regulations.

“[SB19-181] changed the entire mission of the regulatory body from fostering oil and gas development to protecting human health, the environment, and wildlife resources,” Frank, who is now director of environmental services for the Town of Erie, said.

These permits to drill came as a surprise because no notice is given when a permission to drill request is submitted. 

“Sometimes those are issued on a Friday afternoon, and so I may not know that a rig is moving into town and Monday morning when I check my email the rig is already there,” Frank said.

This is usually not a problem, because officials and community members would be aware for months prior that a new project was moving in. But, in this case, the community presumed the project was complete as equipment had been removed from the site for years.

Extraction argued that it was in their rights to continue the project as 45 wells were approved, but only 27 were drilled. In their eyes, this meant that they had the right to drill 18 more wells whenever they chose.

The town of Erie argued that those wells were approved under a different environmental landscape, and the new wells Extraction Oil and Gas hoped to drill would never be approved under the current regulations. 

All of this uncertainty led to a public hearing on January 24, where community stakeholders were invited to voice their views on the issue. In a 4-1 vote, the ECMC denied the seven applications to drill.

This is new territory for a community that has been entrenched in oil and gas for decades.

The long fight

Christiaan van Woudenberg, founder and chief editor of the Erie Protectors, knows this all too well. He started Erie Protectors, an organization informing the community and fighting against further oil and gas drilling in Erie, back in 2015 when a drilling project started just 800 feet from his family home.

Quickly, he learned that the oil and gas companies were not likely to back down.

“We organized to try and fight against it and were just completely overwhelmed by the industry and how quickly they were able to move in and dig up and create this incredibly industrial site,” van Woudenberg said.

In the following years, he has worked to fight drilling in his backyard through creating detailed maps that explain where wells are, encouraging his community to speak up, and making the connection between this drilling and the climate crisis.

He said it is particularly challenging because a majority of the surrounding Erie area is funded by the oil and gas industry. This makes folks hesitant to move away from what has supported their families and community for years – even if they don’t yet know the long-term health impacts.

While residents may be slow to accept this transition, it is happening whether they like it or not. There are already more than twice the amount of people employed by the Colorado solar industry than in the fossil fuel industry, according to a 2022 analysis by Clean Jobs Colorado.

“It’s akin to in the very early days the farmers that provided hay to horses that drew people around in carriages were mad because of the car coming out,” van Woudenberg said. “You’re the dinosaur. I know it’s difficult, but you must change.”

Unfortunately, the residents of Weld County are inevitably going to suffer because of this transition. But, van Woudenberg says there is a way for the movement towards renewables to be just and equitable.

Oil and gas workers can be retrained to learn how to install solar panels, farmers can invest in agrovoltaics by using their land for farming and energy production, and these now shut-down wells will have to be monitored and retired safely. These are all jobs that may slowly come to replace the current oil and gas jobs.

While the January decision was a win for Erie Protectors, the town, and the community, it is not over yet. Extraction Oil and Gas has several options, including appealing the decision, submitting the request with updated information, or potentially suing.

In van Woudenbergs opinion, they won’t step back easily. His experience as an activist from the beginning has been fighting the small battles that he can in the scope of a much larger war.

“It’s David fighting Goliath with a feather,” van Woudenberg said. “Do you take pleasure out of tickling his feet? If you don’t, you take no pleasure at all.”

Change in the weather

But, this recent ECMC ruling does provide some feeling that all of the work Erie Protectors and the town have been doing means something. All of the complaints filed against the Coyote Trails project did not matter when the project was originally approved, but they certainly mattered in January’s hearing.

“The Coyote [Trails] hearing for me, was a true testament to the work that we have done over the last six to eight years,” van Woudenberg said. “It took a really long time, but we at least achieved some meaningful pushback against an industry that has had the ability to do whatever they want for so so long.”

In addition to Extraction Oil and Gas’ options, Frank says there are at least four other spots in the surrounding Erie area that might be subject to a similar situation as Coyote Trails. It is possible that these sites will remain closed, but Coyote Trails is setting a precedent for the potential of these other sites.

Not only should other sites expect pushback, Erie, Broomfield, and Boulder County are currently working together to write a suggestion for the ECMC on how to handle potential similar issues. If this doesn’t work they will go to the state government to suggest legislation ensuring the protection of residents.

On the statewide scale, on February 13 2024, Colorado State Senators Sonya Jaquez Lewis and Kevin Priola introduced legislation that would stop new oil and gas permits from being issued in Colorado by 2030. This would be a huge redirection in focus for the fifth-highest fossil fuel producing state.

“The change to solve the climate crisis does not rest on the shoulders of individuals,” van Woudenberg said. “It rests on the shoulders of governments and corporations, they are the ones that are responsible for doing this.”


Katie Mackinnon
Katie MacKinnon is a writer striving to build connection through storytelling. She specializes in environmental reporting, always looking to find the human angle and the untold story. She has a passion for local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice. When not writing, she can be found reading, sewing, or spending time in the outdoors.

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