Colorado is probably best known for its beautiful mountains, ski resorts and, more recently, a burgeoning cannabis industry. But Colorado actually ranks sixth in the United States in terms of natural gas production and seventh in crude oil. By 2015, there were more than 100,000 Coloradans employed in oil and gas activities to the tune of more than $7 billion in payroll.
When U.S. oil production surged between 2008 and 2015, few states benefited as much as Colorado. The Centennial State saw crude oil production increase by more than 145% after 2007 to more than 380 trillion Btu. This led to a flowering of smaller, rural communities in northeastern Weld County and plummeting energy prices state-wide.
The boom has been strongest in communities such as Greeley, Briggsdale and Fort Lupton. All of these are centered in the heart of Weld County, which accounts for more than 80% of total oil production in the state. Other towns, such as Fort Collins and Longmont, have been more reluctant to embrace their natural resources.
The Niobrara shale reserve has been a source of petroleum exploration for more than 100 years and may have as much as 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the Oil & Gas Monitor. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," are particularly useful due to Colorado's uneven and challenging topography.
Greeley, which is located about 65 miles northwest of Denver, was founded as an agricultural town; oil did not really enter the picture until much later. Greeley is the county seat for Weld County, which makes it perhaps the most influential oil and gas center in the Rocky Mountain region.
Like most of the towns on this list, Greeley is located in the Front Range Corridor and is in what locals refer to as the Denver-Julesburg Basin. The major oil resource in the region is the Wattenberg Field, part of the Niobrara, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day, and some expect to reach 500,000 barrels per day by 2020.
Energy jobs have concentrated in Greeley since 2010. Top employers in the city include Halliburton Company, Select Energy Services, Noble Energy, Inc. and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.
Briggsdale is an unknown, even to many Coloradans. As of 2015, the small rural town has a population of less than 800 people and might be best known as a blip on the way to the Pawnee National Grassland. But somewhere between 2000 and 2014, the town saw an explosion of oil money crop up around the intersection of Highway 392 and Route 14.
The average cost of living in Briggsdale skyrocketed once oil showed up, more than 15% above the national average, in a way that perhaps no other town in Colorado experienced.
Fort Collins did not embrace the new oil economy with open arms. The city government issued a five-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2012, only to see the motion struck down in 2014 by a district judge.
The Fort Collins oil field has a long history dating back to 1927 and is one of the oldest operating oil wells in Colorado. Fort Collins is located on the eastern edge of Larimer County, just west of Weld County, which saw oil production almost double between 2012 and 2014 to almost 300,000 barrels per day. However, production collapsed to less than 110,000 barrels per day by January 2015.
Fort Collins is an influential oil town precisely because it is front and center in the charge for regulatory restraint on Colorado oil production, along with the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Longmont rests in both Boulder County and Weld County, giving it a strategically important position in the Colorado oil debate. Boulder County is probably the least energy-friendly jurisdiction in the state, while Weld County is the most friendly.
Longmont was sued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) in 2012 for energy regulations established out of concert with Colorado laws. The COGCC voted to drop the lawsuit in 2014, which focused specifically on a drilling ban in residential neighborhoods, after a compromise was reached.
Despite a long history of oil production in surrounding areas, the Longmont city government has made an active push to promote solar and wind power and move away from petroleum and natural gas. Yet Longmont is still home to GE Oil and Gas and thousands of its people work in the traditional energy industry.
Fort Lupton is a small city of 7,000 people located in southwest Weld County. Its labor force is concentrated in the petroleum industry, and the city sits on rich oil reserves. Like Greeley, the major oil resource is the Wattenberg Field.
Global energy conglomerate Halliburton has large offices across Colorado, including 1,200 employees in Fort Lupton alone. In 2013, Halliburton built a 200,000 square-foot complex over 75 acres just outside of town. The facility was well-timed, as Colorado broke a 50-year oil production record later in the same year.
Anadarko Petroleum, the second-largest oil operator in Weld County, announced in August 2015 it plans to drill up to 50 wells within the city and expand to over 300 wells in the county. Despite cutbacks in many other parts of the state, the Anadarko move signaled that Fort Lupton would still be home to an expanding oil sector.
The Fracking Controversy
As of 2015, more than 80% of the new oil and gas wells in Colorado utilize hydraulic fracturing. Concerns over the environmental impact of fracking techniques has resulted in pushback from several towns and municipalities, even those which might have otherwise benefited economically from the practice. Several cities across Colorado's Front Range have passed moratoriums or bans on fracking, including Longmont, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Boulder and Broomfield, despite a state law prohibiting local governments from having more stringent energy laws.
District courts struck down several bans, but the state is still very much front and center in the national debate over fracking concerns. Industry experts from the Colorado Oil & Gas Association warn that efforts to restrict petroleum exploration and extraction could place thousands of jobs, and perhaps the entire Colorado economy, at risk.