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Communities of Extraction


Wyatt Sassman (@WyattSassman) is an assistant professor of law at the University of Denver

This post is part of an ongoing series on Just Transitions.

The just transitions literature tends to view communities dependent of fossil fuel extraction as homogenously aligned with the extractive industry. In the archetypal coal town, for example, the interests of residents, workers, and the industry appear to align such that threats to the industry are generalizable as threats to the social health of the community. However, as I have learned in my work with Colorado’s fenceline communities resisting oil & gas developments, there exist significant issues of inequality within communities dependent on fossil fuel extraction. These inequalities make clear that any just transition must repair the disproportionate harms that extraction has inflicted within fossil-fuel-dependent communities.

Inequality within fossil-fuel-dependent communities is a recognized but understudied issue, particularly in places such as Colorado, where the fracking boom dramatically changed the geography of oil & gas extraction over the past decade. The technologies that enabled this boom—the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—shifted the landscape of impacts in Colorado’s communities in three ways.

First, they concentrated the industrial impacts of oil & gas extraction. The single pump-jack out in the farmer’s field was replaced with massive, industrial-scale operations where the industry drills dozens of wells at a single well pad. From this location, each well can reach for miles underground to access oil & gas. By co-locating dozens of wells in one place, industry concentrates the noise, pollution, and other impacts of oil & gas extraction into the immediate area around the well pad. Importantly, this shift has often meant that those who face the impacts of these massive projects are not the people who benefit from extraction through royalty payments or other interests.

Second, the combination of horizontal drilling and fracking pushed extraction closer to residential communities, allowing industry to access oil & gas that had previously been impracticable to extract. Often, this included oil & gas that had since been covered by residential development along Colorado’s growing Front Range. Some developers even began specializing in drilling close to homes, squeezing well pads tightly within residential areas.

Third, these technologies gave industry relatively novel control over where to locate well pads. Historically, states regulated where the industry’s wells tapped oil & gas to maximize the amount pulled out of the Earth, limiting where well pads could go when single well, vertical drilling was the industry standard. With horizontal drilling, however, industry could locate its multi-well pads anywhere within the range of its drill’s underground reach. During most of the fracking boom, state regulation left the placement of these well pads largely up to the industry’s preference.

Together these dynamics concentrated harms closer to people without meaningful oversight of industry siting, raising obvious distributional risks. There is perhaps no better example than the massive project located behind the Bella Romero Academy’s middle school campus. Denver-based company Extraction Oil & Gas had originally proposed to drill dozens of wells next to Frontier Academy, a school serving a largely white community in Greeley, Colorado. When the community organized against the project, Extraction relocated it next to Bella Romero Academy—a school serving a comparatively low-income, Latino community outside of Greeley in unincorporated Weld County, Colorado.

As a patent example of environmental injustice, the project received national and statewide attention. In a story run in the New York Times, one Bella Romero parent explained: “It’s like they said, ‘Put it where the Mexicans live, over there it’s O.K.’” Supported by environmental and racial justice groups, parents and nearby community members organized to oppose the project. Yet Extraction maintained that this was its preferred location, and the socio-legal structures fell into place: permits were issued, hearings denied, lawsuits filed, injunctions denied, wells drilled, wells fracked, and appeals lost. Weld County commissioners unanimously approved the project, publicly “blistering” its opponents as alarmist and opposed to the county’s economic growth.  

The Bella Romero example complicates what we mean by the oil & gas-dependent “community.” While the concept of community “is intricate and elusive,” one way to understand it is as an interaction between shared identity and geographic space. While the community of parents and residents around Bella Romero preexisted Extraction’s project, the project redefined the community in both senses. Physically, the project redefined their geographic space as one dominated by extraction. Socially and politically, it repositioned the parents and residents’ opposition to the project as opposition to the larger community dependent on oil & gas extraction.

This differentiation, in turn, subordinated the community through a dynamic familiar from the environmental justice literature. As Shelia Foster and Luke Cole wrote over twenty years ago, disproportionate siting of hazardous land uses create segregated spaces where communities are “isolated not only geographically and economically, but also socially and culturally.” “This isolation,” they continue, “leads to political marginalization” such that “the concerns of such communities are rarely taken seriously,” and “are often ignored altogether by decision makers.” This dynamic is amplified in places dependent on extraction. In a place like Weld County, the same alignment with extractive industry that makes it a community in need of a just transition also works to subordinate those communities that oppose the industry—opposition to the industry becomes socially and politically isolating, compounding the isolation of having your neighborhood redrawn into an industry sacrifice zone.

Bella Romero again provides an illustration. Shortly after Extraction started production from its wells, a state air pollution monitor picked up high levels of benzene at the school, a cancer-causing air pollutant associated with oil & gas operations. But then the state removed the air monitor and never brought it back. Weld County commissioners issued a statement again characterizing concern over the pollution as alarmist, with one commissioner suggesting that the state’s monitoring was “politically motivated.” The Bella Romero community rallies still, insisting that “we’re going to keep telling the story of Bella Romero because if we stop talking about Bella Romero they are going to forget about us and they’re going to ignore the atrocities that the state has allowed to happen.” Just last month Bella Romero’s county school district rejected a community-organized plan to continue air monitoring for free, supported by over 100 parents, teachers, and family members associated with the school, saying that monitoring isn’t needed.

Bella Romero demonstrates how inequality develops within communities dependent on oil & gas extraction, demanding greater sensitivity to the concept of “community” in just transitions. While the just transitions literature has used the phrase “sacrifice zones” to describe entire regions dependent on extraction, so too can sacrifice zones exist within places dependent on extraction.

These dynamics demonstrate that the commitments of a just transition must extend beyond material repair to repairing the political harms of extraction—extraction’s effect of differentiating and subordinating people and places within communities dependent on extraction. As Pierce Greenberg has argued, “neighborhood-level” impacts within coal-dependent communities show that “a complete notion of a just transition must include a plan for the alleviation of environmental hazards through reclamation and cleanup.” Likewise, a just transition for communities like Bella Romero must include repairing the environmental damage to people and places that lay the foundations for inequality within oil & gas-dependent communities. But Bella Romero demonstrates how this argument should reach farther to address the isolation and subordination of people and places that have borne the most serious impacts of extraction. A just transition requires the political restoration of communities like Bella Romero—not only plugging the wells, but also elevating the voices of the people and places who have borne the burdens of extraction to guide a transition. A just transition for the Bella Romero community is, put simply, a precondition to a just transition for Weld County.