ERIE — A newly elected Erie Town Board member is drawing the ire of the town’s residents and others for what they say is blatant bias against the oil and gas industry, and in direct conflict with his role on the Erie Town Board.
Christiaan van Woudenberg was elected in April in a contentious election pitting the eastern half of Erie, which lies in the more conservative Weld County, against the more liberal western side in Boulder County.
van Woudenberg ran on a mostly environmentalist and anti-oil and gas platform and continues down that path since sworn into office, something some say is unethical as he is now in a quasi-judicial role when land use cases come before the board.
“It’s one thing for elected officials to express strong political opinions on policy and take tough stands,” said Rebecca Simons, spokeswoman for Energy in Depth. “It’s quite another for that same official to carry out a dedicated effort to undermine a particular company.”
Energy in Depth is a research, education and public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Its website says its primary goal is “focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other “tight” formations across the country.”
The issues at hand pertain to ongoing Facebook posts by van Woudenberg that appear to cross a line of objectivity, including one where van Woudenberg solicits his friends to file complaints with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) over an Extraction Oil and Gas drilling site.
In his post, van Woudenberg encourages anyone living near the Coyote Trails pad who “think” the site “may” be causing health problems to file a complaint with the state.
“I’m in touch with Sean Hackett, a Health Concern Investigator for the CDPHE, and he hasn’t received many complaints about Coyote Trails yet,” the post read.
Bill Jerke, Executive Director of Fostering Unity and Energizing Leadership (FUEL) said there are likely to not be many complaints because health problems cannot be directly correlated to drilling operations.
FUEL is an alliance of Weld County civic and business leaders committed to advancing citizens’ understanding of the natural resource industries in our county, including oil and gas, agriculture, gravel and water.
Jerke said there is no documentation that fracking or benzine (a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum) causes health problems.
“Are there higher concentrations of benzine right next to a drilling site? Probably,” he said. “But that’s why there are setbacks.”
Jerke said that by the time you get 500 feet away there is nearly no measurable record of the toxin.
“We also don’t know how much benzine is naturally occurring,” Jerke said, citing similar issues with pine trees omitting organic gasses into the ozone on hot days, calling the concerns similar to the canary in the mine shaft. “The reality is we’ve had 10,000 plus oil wells in Weld County for 20-plus years now, and our health is exactly the same if not better than the rest of the northern front range counties and the state of Colorado as a whole.”
Critics say that van Woudenberg shouldn’t be the one pushing the effort and that he crosses the line by leading Erie Protectors, an anti-oil and gas activist group as well as actively participating in Colorado Rising, the group hoping to put a question on the November ballot that would increase setbacks to 2,500 feet for vulnerable areas.
“Martin Marietta fired Erie resident Paula Oransky for participating in a protest against oil and gas last September,” said an Erie resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Yet, van Woudenberg organized that protest.”
The resident said he finds it odd that people are upset that a private company fired anemployee for protesting oil and gas, but are not upset an elected official who holds all the power in land use determinations organized the effort.
The protesters wore hazmat suits and disrupted a meeting organized by Anadarko Petroleum to the point the recreation center had to shut down and police were called. The resident also pointed out that van Wouldenberg voted against a development with an oil and gas pad site on the very night he as sworn in.
“Erie Protectors had come out against it previously,” the resident said. “It’s pretty clear that the directives of the Erie Protectors group are to basically shut down any kind of development for oil and gas in Erie, and he basically takes his directives from that group. There is no indication he intends to give up activists’ activity.”
“You’re probably wanting to complain about one of these active sites in Erie,” the page says, listing the sites with their Facility IDs.
It goes one step further and links from the Erie Protectors site directly to the Board of Trustees email.
Additionally, he gives tips on how to actively protest the industry from contacting government officials to social media posts, again circling back to his organization.
“Tag @erieprotectors on Twitter, use the #nodrillsnopipelines hashtag,” the page reads. “Join the Erie Community O&G Monitoring group on Facebook. Like the Erie Protectors page on Facebook.”
van Woudenberg does not believe he is out of order with the posts and that he can fulfill his role on the Town Board.
“As a data scientist, a mathematician, and a pragmatist, I take pride in being able to consider all presented evidence without bias when considering any item that comes before the Board of Trustees, as is my duty when quasi-judicial matters come before the Board,” van Woudenberg told Complete Colorado. “I take the people’s trust in my ability to perform these duties without bias very seriously.”
Simons doesn’t agree.
“This indeed raises numerous questions and concerns about objectivity on matters before the board,” she said.