Northern Colorado has a problem. Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill that would double the renewable energy output from Colorado's rural energy cooperatives by 2020, and northern Coloradans consider the move an affront to their way of life. Now, several counties, all of which thrive on the oil and natural gas industry, as well as agriculture, want to secede and become the 51st state of the union.
Joining Weld, Morgan, Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Washington, Yuma and Kit Carson counties in their Quixotic effort will be a few counties in Nebraska and Kansas.
Here is an idea: let 'em do it. As an experiment in pure, unregulated free market capitalism, it would be instructive. So, as a though experiment, let us imagine what North Colorado would look like inside of a decade. Hell, this scenario might even play out in just a couple of years.
First, the extraction of shale gas, AKA hydraulic fracturing or fracking, would be deregulated. So would shale oil production. In other words, little to no measures would be in place to ensure safe and ethical extraction. Environmental health and ecological balance would be afterthoughts.
Fracking technology has been in use since the 1940s, but really became a cash cow in only the last a few years as it's boomed under the Obama administration and in Northern Colorado. In that space of time, a number of regions have been reduced to ghost towns. Groundwater has been rendered unsafe to drink. There are also concerns that cancer rates are higher in these areas. Those who stay in fracking regions expose themselves to the risk of ill health, lower property values, lawsuits, and unsafe conditions for their children, amongst other fallout.
"Northern Colorado would be a cautionary tale of how humanity's energy-driven death drive, and a perverted, idealistic and irresponsbile form of capitalism ruins everything."
If the energy industry were allowed to frack wherever and whenever, it would do so. Northern Colorado law, or the lack of it, would create ideal conditions for a fracking orgy. On the federal level, as noted in Gaslands Part II, the EPA's hands are tied. Obama is committed to natural gas.
When the EPA tried to help residents in Weatherford, Texas and Dimock, Pennsylvania, they were told to back off in 2012, just in time for the presidential election. Trillions of dollars were at stake. So there would essentially be no federal regulation of the fracking industry either.
Regulation would fall to municipalities, which would probably find their power superseded by that of the state, not that local politicians would be able to stand up to the fossil fuel industry anyway. Northern Colorado would experience something akin to fracking gold rush, with little to slow or measure its pace.
Satellite image from SkyTruth shows a region covered in natural gas fields.
Good for them. Landowners (well, some anyway) and corporations would be made rich, but they'd also be shitting in their own backyards. Any state bordering Northern Colorado, including Colorado, would find its border regions' water supply polluted with chemicals. A new study in Science titled "Injection-Induced Earthquakes" lends even more support to the idea that fracking can cause regional earthquakes. But, Arkansas residents didn't need a study to prove the increased frequency of earthquakes—they've suspected a connection for several years.
The Northern Colorado landscape would be littered with oil fields and pipelines. This, along with natural gas pipelines, would require the clear-cutting of significant swaths of the Colorado rural environment. To do this, forced pooling (a type of eminent domain) would give landowners three options: pay for a percentage of the well and receive a cut of the profits; don't contribute to the well's costs, and get a cut after a penalty is levied; or leave and take a royalty payment.
If Northern Colorado residents refuse to accept those three options, a fourth exists: forcible ejection from their property with the third option's royalty payment. And they wouldn't get free market top dollar either—they'd get low-balled by the state, which wouldn't be getting anything other than jobs in return, because energy companies will get sweetheart tax breaks. But, hey, politicians will find their pockets nicely lined with campaign dollars come election season. And since Northern Colorado would be overwhelmingly pro-energy, the permanent minority would not be able to resist.
And then there is Northern Colorado's agricultural industry. Might as well kiss that goodbye, or at least a good chunk of it. A poisoned well doesn't just impact humans, but crops and livestock as well. What crops will grow with severely polluted water? And, if crops do manage to grow, would they even be safe for consumption? Who would drink the milk from Northern Colorado cattle, or eat beef from the state for that matter—assuming the cattle live long enough to yield their beef?
Finally, who would want to live in Northern Colorado? What parents would want to raise their children there? As people leave, how would schools manage to exist? Privatization, obviously! Would there even be a tourism industry in the great state of Northern Colorado? Would people come to experience its wilderness, fish its rivers and streams, hunt its native game, or hike and ski its mountains? Maybe. But these people would be nuts to even entertain the idea, unless they eat and drink imported food and water, or locate areas free of fracking-induced environmental degradation.
If Northern Colorado has its way, it will become a dystopian wasteland. Kind of like what John Brunner imagined in his groundbreaking speculative novel on environmental devastation, The Sheep Look Up. At night, the new state's horizon might resemble the Los Angeles horizon in the opening scene of Blade Runner: belches of gaseous flames illuminating the darkened sky. In short, Northern Colorado would be a cautionary tale of how humanity's energy-driven death drive, and a perverted, idealistic and irresponsible form of capitalism ruins everything.