Two years ago, the last time Colorado was threatened with anti-fracking measures on the statewide ballot, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) called the initiatives “radical” and “extreme.” Today, you’d better grab a dictionary and thesaurus to find some new adjectives, because the measures headed for this November’s ballot are much, much worse.
Let’s start with a quick 2014 recap. National anti-fracking groups teamed up with millionaire Boulder Congressman Jared Polis (D) to run a statewide campaign against Colorado’s energy sector. In early March 2014, a Polis-backed group – Coloradans for Local Control – floated nine potential anti-fracking measures. A few months later, Polis claimed to have gathered the necessary signatures for two measures to make the statewide ballot. One would ban drilling within 2,000 feet of any occupied building and the other would give local governments the authority to prohibit oil and gas development entirely.
At one point, Polis even held talks with California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer about joining forces to finance the anti-fracking measures. But in the face of broad bipartisan opposition, Polis eventually backed down and never submitted the signatures for verification.
Now let’s return to 2016. In early May, the spotlight was back on a new set of anti-fracking initiatives, after the Colorado Supreme Court reaffirmed that local oil and gas bans are illegal. Food & Water Watch – the national activist group that campaigned for those local bans – said the court decision shows “exactly why we need to pass … ballot measures this November.”
So how do the new initiatives compare to the 2014 ballot measures, which Hickenlooper warned “would drive oil and gas out of Colorado” due to their severe impacts?
Mile High Stadium times five
On setbacks, the activists are now pushing to ban oil and gas development within 2,500 feet of any occupied building. For scale, imagine a circle with a radius of 2,500 feet. The area inside that circle is roughly 450 acres – five times the size of Mile High Stadium and its parking lot. That’s the size of the no-drilling zone that would be imposed around any occupied building, and it’s 56 percent larger than the 2014 measure called for.
Now, think about how those stadium-sized circles overlap in Weld County, which has been a huge producer of oil and natural gas for decades. Tens of thousands of households already exist, with thousands more on the way, thanks to the growing suburbs of nearby college towns like Boulder and Fort Collins. But there’s another catch, and it’s a big one. According to the setback measure, the no-drilling zone of 450 acres would apply to other places besides buildings, including parks, streams, irrigation canals, sports fields and other areas of “special concern.” Soon enough, finding places to drill new wells would become practically impossible – which is the goal of “ban fracking” groups like Food & Water Watch, of course.
For this reason, Hickenlooper recently warned the state could be forced to pay “many billions of dollars” in compensation to the owners of oil and natural gas mineral rights if the 2,500-foot setback measure ever passed. At the same time, the state economy would suffer billions of dollars in additional losses and tens of thousands of jobs would also be sacrificed, according to a University of Colorado study on setbacks commissioned by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable.
Invalid, unenforceable, unconstitutional
On local bans, three ballot measures are getting close attention. Two are very similar to the “local control” initiative proposed by Polis and the activists in 2014. They would attempt to legalize the kind of local bans that were struck down as “invalid and unenforceable” by the Colorado Supreme Court.
But the third “local control” initiative goes even further. The so-called Colorado Community Rights Amendment is a stridently anti-business measure which tries to legalize local bans or unworkable local regulations on any economic activity the activists don’t like. Energy, agriculture, labor relations, corporate law, civil rights – you name it, local governments would decide it, with the help of fringe activist groups.
There’s just one problem with this approach, pushed by another national activist group, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). “I appreciate their opposition to corporate power and their defense of the environment, but it is flatly unconstitutional,” Kent Greenfield, a law professor at Boston College, told Reuters last year. That’s because an amendment that allows local governments to ignore constitutional rights would allow for the re-segregation of schools and other blatantly illegal actions, he said.
But losing costly court battles is exactly the point, according to CELDF’s executive director, because “if a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.” Good to know.
Back in 2014, CELDF’s local partners in Colorado were pushing a similar community rights amendment, but they withdrew the measure early because they stood no chance of gathering the signatures. The effort was rushed and poorly organized, and they have spent the last two years planning the 2016 signature drive, giving themselves a much better chance of making this year’s ballot.
Enabling the extremes
So, compared to where we were two years ago, the anti-fracking campaign in Colorado is much more extreme and threatens to inflict much more damage on the state’s economy and working families. Maybe that’s why Congressman Polis – who was the face of the anti-fracking fight at this point in 2014 – is keeping a much lower profile this time around.
For example, after the recent Colorado Supreme Court decision overturning the local fracking bans, Polis took a different approach than the activists. While he didn’t rule out the possibility of ballot measures, he also said “it’s up to the state legislature” to get involved. It was a strange plea, coming weeks after the defeat of a “local control” bill in the state House, which is run by Democrats, and with only a handful of days left in this year’s legislative session.
But the legislature didn’t save Polis from embarrassment in 2014, and there’s no reason to think they’ll save him this year, either. He enabled these extreme forces in Colorado politics, and one way or another, he will have to take responsibility for it.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.