U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder (Courtesy photo)

For U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the battle over fracking just turned personal.

Polis, a Boulder Democrat who represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, was shocked to see a fracking operation start up last week on land just across the street from a rural getaway he owns in Weld County near Berthoud.

Through the holding company that has title to the congressman's 50-acre property, Polis this week filed a complaint in Denver District Court seeking a temporary restraining order. His goal is to shut the drilling down.

"I'm going public and talking about it because it's happening to a lot of other people in Colorado," Polis told the Daily Camera. "This can happen to anybody. It can happen to you. It can happen to your neighbor. It can happen to your congressman.

"The laws in Colorado are outrageously out of touch in terms of protecting property."

The complaint filed Monday in Denver District Court by Mountain Property Improvement LLC names Denver-based Sundance Energy Inc. and Polis's neighboring property owner as defendants.

A hearing is scheduled in Denver on Friday morning on Polis's request for the temporary restraining order.

A Sundance Energy spokesman on Thursday said the company would "respectfully decline to comment" on the case since it is currently pending in court.

Officials with Energy in Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign organized through the Independent Petroleum Association of America, declined to comment on the merits of the complaint without having the opportunity to review all of the case materials.

Polis authored a guest opinion on his dilemma that will appear in Sunday's edition of the Camera.

In his 800-word commentary, Polis wrote, "For years, I have fought for sensible fracking laws -- I have written op-eds, introduced legislation to close oil and gas loopholes in the Clean Air Act, and I have even testified before the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. I did all that because I have been concerned about the impact that fracking has on the health of communities as well as the economic impact as it relates to property value.

A truck drives past the fracking operation across Weld County Road 5 from property owned by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, near Berthoud on Thursday.
A truck drives past the fracking operation across Weld County Road 5 from property owned by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, near Berthoud on Thursday. Polis has filed suit to stop the drilling. (Kai Casey / For the Camera)

"But now it is personal, like it has already been for so many of my constituents."

Polis also wrote: "I am going to pursue every avenue available to me to stop this from ruining my home. But under Colorado law, our options are limited."

Rising protest

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is a widely used but controversial method of oil and gas extraction that involves the pumping of water, sand and chemicals into shale formations. The processes' many critics say its potential costs to the environment and public health, while not yet fully known, could be considerable.

Mounting protests over fracking led Boulder County commissioners in June to extend a ban on new oil and gas permits in unincorporated areas for another 18 months.

Longmont residents last year voted for a ban on fracking -- drawing a lawsuit from the state -- while the city of Boulder enacted a one-year moratorium last month, with Boulder voters expected to consider a five-year moratorium in November.

Ballot signatures are still being counted in Lafayette from residents who are seeking a fracking ban in that city.

'Damaging to the quality of life'

Meanwhile, Polis expressed outrage over learning how powerless he -- or anyone else -- can be in the face of a business's determination to exploit its mineral rights.

"This shouldn't be any different than if somebody was trying to build a factory right next door to us," Polis said. "It's a slightly different kind of factory, but every bit as damaging to the quality of life in the neighborhood. It was built before we even had a chance to raise an objection."

According to the complaint filed in Denver District Court, trucks and equipment appeared around July 18 on the land directly across Weld County Road 5 from Polis's property, which he described in the interview as a "small farm" of about 50 acres east of Berthoud.

Within days, a drilling rig was standing on his neighbor's property, estimated to be no more than 50 feet from the foot of Polis's driveway.

Drilling operations began a short time later, according to the suit, to the distress of Perry Reis, the father of Polis's partner. Reis is identified in the complaint as the property's caretaker, and lives there much of the time with his daughter.

By the evening of July 21, according to the complaint, Reis "was unable to continue working at the guest house located on the property because of a strong, noxious odor that accompanied the drilling operations."

In its claim for relief, the suit states that the "increased noise and noxious fumes" from the drilling operations "have encroached on the property, causing mental suffering, annoyance and the loss of use and enjoyment" of the property, and will continue to do so unless the drilling operations "are stopped, relocated or the noise and fumes are otherwise controlled," making the property habitable.

For the time being, however, Reis and his daughter are living instead at Polis's home in Boulder.

"They're kind of refugees from our own property, with very little recourse,' Polis said.

'Live the Colorado dream'

The congressman said he bought the Weld County property about 12 years ago, and it now serves as a bucolic getaway from Washington, D.C., and doing the business of his constituents in the 2nd Congressional District -- which once included Weld County but, due to subsequent redistricting, now no longer does.

In his guest commentary, and in an interview, Polis discussed the land's simple pleasures, such as the eight beehives he keeps there, and the delight his young son takes in the turtles and frogs in a pond located on the property.

And Polis, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, admitted he was in a far different position from most people who might find themselves in a similar situation.

"We have neighbors who have their whole life savings invested up there. They are retired and have no alternative but to leave or sell their property. What are they going to do?" he said.

"This highlights the failure of Weld County's approach with this," he added. "They are simply not protecting property owners... People have no rights, and oil and gas has all the rights in Weld County."

Polis is not directing his ire at the owner of the neighboring property where drilling is now taking place, identified in the suit as Irene Hornung. It is instead aimed at the company actually doing the drilling.

"This is not a company that I have heard of before," Polis said. "We didn't know who the heck they were before we filed."

On its company website, Sundance is described as "a U.S. onshore oil and gas company focused on the acquisition and development of large, repeatable resource plays." It claims a "well-located portfolio in premier U.S. oil and gas basins," with current operational activities focused in the Greater Anadarko, Denver-Julesburg, South-Texas-Gulf Coast and Williston basins.

The request for a restraining order does not seek any damages, financial or otherwise.

"We would love to see them stop and be able to allow us to live the Colorado dream that I worked hard to have, and enjoy my family time there," Polis said.

"If they were willing to stop, that would be the last of it."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.