The Durango Herald. November vote big for oil, gas firmsImage of

November vote big for oil, gas firms

By Sharon Dunne, as appearing in The Durango Herald

Heavy hitters expected to jump in state fight on proposed oil, gas ballot initiatives

As they say in sports, it could all come down to this one game.

Colorado’s November election could be a pivotal one for the oil and gas industry if voters are presented with questions to limit drilling in the state.

From the money the election would command, to the potential legal questions they could pose, to the implications for drilling across the country, a lot will be riding on petitioners’ abilities to collect signatures to place four issues on the ballot.

The initiatives would limit oil and gas drilling in local communities or give governing bodies rights to curtail such activities within their borders – measures that are sure to command millions of dollars in campaign spending. Many think this could easily be a $200 million election issue in Colorado this year.

Protesters gathered out front of the Colorado Supreme Court Building to protest fracking before hearings on local communities and fracking on Dec. 9, 2015. Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post.

Protesters gathered out front of the Colorado Supreme Court Building to protest fracking before hearings on local communities and fracking on Dec. 9, 2015. Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post.

“This will be one of the biggest environmental fights in the country this year,” said Lauren Petrie, Rocky Mountain region director for Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for safety in food production and oil and gas production. “All eyes will be on the outcome for these Colorado ballot initiatives.”

The initiatives range from requiring at least 2,500-foot distances between oil and gas facilities and neighborhoods, to allowing communities to determine their own rules on oil and gas drilling within their borders. They command backing from heavy hitters on each side of the issue, as well as a growing contingent of unhappy residents who don’t want oil and gas in their backyards.

How did we get here?Colorado’s debate on the question of allowing oil and gas drilling to encroach further into neighborhoods has been an ongoing battle for the past few years. Technology improved the process, essentially allowing companies to drill more wells from the same area, and population in many cases grew into previously untapped areas.

The oil and gas industry was caught off guard, having operated for years in relative peace in Colorado. Drilling had been ongoing in Weld County since 1970.

“We were behind the eight-ball four years ago, trying to catch up to the lie that went ’round the world (that fracking poisons water) …,” said Doug Flanders, political director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which is the industry lobby, based in Denver.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2013 enacted stricter drilling setbacks after a year of study. The commission boosted setbacks to 500 feet from 350 feet on residences, and to 1,000 feet from 500 feet on multiple occupancy buildings to address growing concerns. It didn’t.

In 2014, Colorado congressman Jared Polis organized others to bring fracking bans to the ballot. Then, Gov. John Hickenlooper found a compromise and organized an oil and gas task force, led by La Plata County Commissioner Gwenn Lachelt, to address growing concerns instead of deciding the incredibly complex issues at the ballot box. The group, comprised of oil and gas industry, local governments and resident-activists, came up with two solutions on which they could unanimously agree. One was to funnel more money into the regulation side to monitor oil and gas activity better. The other required mandatory discussions with local governments and oil producers to help with siting oil and gas development. That resulted in a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission making rules five months ago outlining the process for that communication.

That year, the commission created the county’s most stringent methane emissions regulations on oil and gas facilities – rules which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently used as the backbone to enact national emissions regulations.

The oil and gas industry launched an intensive education campaign to show residents they have nothing to fear from them. The industry’s education efforts have centered on the contribution to the economy. The industry employs thousands of people in Colorado and has been reported to contribute about $29 billion a year to Colorado as it contributes to America’s energy independence. The industry reports its processes are the most environmentally friendly they’ve ever been.

For those on the fence in the debate, the campaign has helped, industry supporters say.

“It’s just one of those occasions where the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” said Bill Jerke, a former state legislator and county commissioner who heads up the pro-industry group, FUEL, or Fostering Unity and Energizing Leadership, an alliance of Weld County civic and business leaders committed to that education campaign.

“We have a better educated populace than a couple years ago,” Jerke said. “The people left now as ‘antis’ are the true believers who absolutely positively believe we are somehow destroying the Earth.”

There were plenty who were angered their voices weren’t heard on the task force. The recent Supreme Court ruling stating communities could not enact drilling bans exacerbated the issue.

“That sent a shock wave across the state,” Petrie said. “People were furious to know they no longer have the right to protect their families from the industry.”

The ‘antis’Organizers of two of the ballot initiates – seeking 2,500-foot setbacks and granting local governments sole authority to regulate drilling in their communities – say their measures won’t impinge on the industry’s contribution to the state. Their measures protect residents, they say.

“Number one, this is a compromise,” said Tricia Olson, who has pumped in most of the funding for a group backing initiatives 75 and 78. “It isn’t ‘No drilling.’ … The initiatives themselves are quite reasonable, and most definitely, they don’t stop all drilling. They just try to keep it away from homes and allow local communities a lot more say in what happens to them.”

She said the 2,500-foot setbacks, which would be enforced on new wells only, would give drillers plenty of room to drill, but maybe cost them more money.

Industry advocates beg to differ – even as they develop drilling techniques that allow them to get to their resources from as much as two miles away.

“The whole idea of (the ballot initiatives) is to put the kibosh on drilling,” Jerke said.

It seems the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission agrees. After conducting a study of 2,500-foot setbacks, the agency recently found that greater than 90 percent of surface acreage in Colorado would be unavailable for future development if the setbacks were to pass.

Initiative 40, backed by a group called Coloradans for Community Rights, would allow local governments to enact laws to eliminate competing rights of “corporations and other business entities operating or seeking to operate, in the community.”

Initiative No. 63 would give residents the right to create laws to protect the environment, and sue on behalf of the environment – something Jerke said is “a special kind of crazy.”

Representatives of those issues did not return messages for comment.

The battle to come As groups organize now, those seeking to put the initiatives on the ballot need more than 98,000 signatures, or 5 percent of Coloradoans who voted in the last regular election.

Boots are on the ground and petitioners are spreading across the landscape to beat the Aug. 8 deadline to get those signatures.

Olson and her group hope to collect 160,000 signatures to account for the invalid signatures that inevitably pop up.

The money going into this election will be immense. Colorado oil and gas giants Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy have together already put $5.5 million into the fight, in just one reporting period alone. Other oil and gas companies, PDC Energy, Synergy Resources and Whiting, together have put in $700,000 – all during a downturn in the industry, where drilling has slowed to a trickle.

“We’re in a stronger position than we were two years ago, but does that mean we let our guard down? No,” said Flanders of COGA. “We’ll continue to push back on activists who want oil and gas to stay in the ground, who don’t care that we’re providing clean, reliable and affordable energy, that banning (drilling) will do nothing but create unemployment or hurt the poorest of poor who have to choose between food and energy.

“We’re not going away; we’ll continue to push back on the extremes.”

It’ll most assuredly be a David and Goliath battle, Olson recognized, as she has been involved in Front Range communities’ efforts to limit or ban drilling in recent years.

“We knew that when we started (years ago),” Olson said of how industry could outspend them. “Every campaign in ’12 and ’13, Longmont. They all knew that. In Loveland, they were outspent 300 to 1. We always knew that would be how it would come out. We were going to be outspent. However, except for Loveland, which was close, every campaign was won.

“Do I feel intimidated?” she said. “Not really.”

John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University and political analyst, said money will indeed play a role. But when emotion gets mixed in, the tenor of the debate changes.

“On a lot of these issues, if there’s an emotional dimension to it, you’ve got to spend a lot of money to overcome that,” Straayer said. “If you can cast an issue of what’s more important, the health of my children or the profits of a big business, you know where everyone comes down … ‘Oh my god, the children, the children?’”

Fight to end all fightsFrom the outset, this pending fight will be a big one. It promises to draw massive turnout as well as watchers across the country.

“Colorado is considered oil and gas country,” Petrie of Food and Water Watch stated. “Extracting natural gas and oil for decades, if people are seeing that even in Colorado, which is so entrenched, … if we’re standing up to fight back against the industry to get our rights back to protect our homes and families, it will inspire people throughout the country.”

Despite the spending that goes into it, the emotion will drive voters to the polls. And the movement against drilling has grown, Petrie said. Then again, Colorado has become home to many new residents who hadn’t yet been faced with these questions.

“A lot of people on the fences have come to see the encroachment of fracking on communities and how it’s impacting people’s lives, so this movement has just grown exponentially over the past few years,” Petrie said. “A lot of people have come over to the anti-fracking side just because they see how invasive the industry is, and how the industry is willing to walk over your rights.”

But rights are a funny animal. The discussion about oil and gas is about property rights.

Straayer said he’s not sure the ballot questions can survive the legal challenges that could come.

“One thing I’m not clear about is how this will run headlong in a collision (course) with the whole business of property rights,” Straayer said. “How far can they go in the name of local control, or state control? … I’m not sure you can amend a state constitution to obliterate a property right.”

If the measures do make it to the ballot and pass, they will surely land in court, and recent decisions could inform the outcome. The state Supreme Court recently ruled that cities could not ban fracking in their city limits.

“They’ve lost at the Supreme Court level, the local level, they’ve lost all around,” Flanders said. “Their momentum, despite the echo chamber they operate in, is fading away.”

It could become a federal debate soon, Jerke said, if the measures pass.

“They’d wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court before long and that would be the battle of the century.”