A rural Colorado community that turned to organic farming, renewable energy, and tourism to help it break its dependence on coal mining is now looking over its shoulder at oil and gas fracking projects that could undercut its hard-earned gains.
Although the West Elk coal mine in North Fork Valley “still dumps the black rock into trains at the rate of 50 cars per hour,” InsideClimate News reports, the community is simultaneously creating a far different, more sustainable economy for itself, recovering its farming past and embracing the job and economic benefits of renewable energy and tourism.
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Delta County, where North Fork Valley is located, “has seen the risks that come with the economically disruptive boom-and-bust cycles of fossil fuel development,” writes InsideClimate, noting that “coal mine layoffs have put about 700 people out of work in the area since 2008.”
Weathering this and other fossil-related economic and social storms have been the region’s organic farming and tourism sectors, with a local economic study identifying the two industries as key stabilizers ever since the 2008 recession. “Leveraging that strength can provide for higher-wage jobs and diversify the local economy,” InsideClimate notes.
However, “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.” That’s bad news for the farmers of the valley, since “many proposed drilling areas are right next to organic farms or ranches, and even directly on top of community drinking water springs,” while “industrial emissions and dust from increased traffic could taint fruits and vegetables.”
The sprawling infrastructure that comes with fracking also poses a threat to wildlife, and would blight a landscape that draws a significant number of tourists every year. And then there are “the direct climate-harming impacts of more fossil fuel development.”
Local community organizer Pete Kolbenschlag said he fears what the renewed oil and gas assault, urged on by Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, will do to North Fork Valley’s sustainable farming sector.
“This administration isn’t just pro oil and gas. It’s inimical to protection,” he said, adding that locals think it’s plain crazy to go gangbusters on fossils when prices are falling and markets are glutted.
“Everybody knows oil and gas isn’t economical right now,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind thinks this is the economic path forward for these rural communities.”
Very much in their own right minds, North Fork farmers are also responding to clear and escalating signs of the climate crisis—a crisis that will only be exacerbated by more fracking, notes InsideClimate. “By many measures, Colorado is heating up much faster than the global average—about 2.0°F in the last 50 years.”
Agroforestry, in which annual crops are planted among carbon-sequestering and soil-enriching perennial shrubs and trees, is one of the practices taking hold in the valley, as farmers struggle to build resilience in the face of temperature extremes that kill crops and destroy soil.
Area farmers are also keen on fostering energy independence, in keeping with their state’s stated goal to achieve 100% renewable power by 2040. “Locally produced renewable energy would be a big step toward building a sustainable local economy, because it means keeping money within the North Fork Valley, rather than watching it flow off to a giant energy company in Denver or Kansas,” Kolbenschlag told InsideClimate.
Freshly released from an agreement from a regional energy wholesaler that had capped local energy production at 5%, the valley’s energy co-op “will now be able to buy power from regional wind farms, and it can develop new local sources of renewable energy, including micro-hydropower plants in irrigation pipes, as well as solar and wind.”
And the county’s latest economic development plan is significantly focused on a form of energy independence that actually sustains itself, with Colorado-based Solar Energy International (SEI) looking to “solarize” Delta County. SEI is providing training for those interested in learning a trade in solar or micro-hydro installation and maintenance. The county also has a small methane capture project that powers a regional ski resort.
Kolbenschlag stressed that the evolution away from fossils “wasn’t just an issue of principle,” InsideClimate says. “It became a fiscal issue, because it was becoming cheaper to buy local or regional renewable power than electricity from distant coal-fired power plants.” Eventually, “a regional or national carbon market could even make it economically feasible to produce energy from the methane now being directly vented to the atmosphere at the West Elk Mine.”
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