Many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches. Farmers worry that could put crops, water supplies and wildlife at risk.
Driving down Highway 133 from the craggy wilds of the West Elk Mountains in central Colorado, one of the first signs of civilization is a mile-long coal train on a siding, along with the rusting steel framework of a canyon-spanning loading station that still dumps the black rock into trains at the rate of 50 cars per hour.
This nearly relict fossil fuel infrastructure is an improbable gateway to the orchards and vineyards of North Fork Valley. The few miles between the mine and Paonia mark a transition from the fossil fuel era into an uncertain post-carbon age, defined by climate change.
In Paonia, the air around Big B’s fruit stand is scented sweet-sour from the harvest of ripe apples. There are four types of cider on tap and nearly all the food on the menu is grown within a few miles of the local gathering spot.
The Mountain Harvest Festival is underway, and the place is buzzing, as community catalyzer Pete Kolbenschlag starts explaining how Paonia is building a sustainable future.
This community once relied heavily on coal mining jobs. Now it is developing a path toward a sustainable local economy based partly on organic agriculture and local renewable energy. It also must find ways to navigate challenges like global warming—and the growing threat of new fossil fuel development.
About eight years ago, the federal government proposed major oil and gas drilling in the North Fork Valley, and the plan roared to life this past summer, just as the organic food industry was really starting to take off. New drilling would take up land and threaten to bring more air pollution and potentially groundwater contamination that could put organic crops in jeopardy, while also contributing to climate change.
That’s not a mix that can work, said Kolbenschlag, who’s been working on community sustainability in the North Fork Valley for 20 years.
Many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches, and even directly on top of community drinking water springs, according to the Western Environmental Law Center, which is supporting the community’s legal challenges to fracking. Leaks from drilling could threaten local and regional water supplies. Industrial emissions and dust from increased traffic could taint fruits and vegetables, and energy infrastructure could harm wildlife habitat and diminish the area’s tourism appeal, along with the direct climate-harming impacts of more fossil fuel development.
“Leases were proposed in a ring around my house for 2 miles in every direction,” Kolbenschlag said. “We were able to stop that lease sale twice because the underlying land plan was outdated. There’s millions of dollars of agriculture on the line, even in a small area like this.”