Two measures that would limit oil and gas development in Colorado just cleared a massive, highly contested hurdle toward getting on the ballot in November.
A group of environmental and community organizations submitted the requisite 196,984 signatures — and then some — to the Colorado Secretary of State on Monday. The signatures would allow initiatives 75, which would authorize towns and cities to regulate fracking, and 78, which would create mandatory setbacks for oil and gas development, to go to voters this fall.
Up until the last minute, it was unclear whether the groups would have enough signatures.
Advocates say that’s because the energy industry has been pushing hard to keep people from signing the petition. An industry-backed group, Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) has run a series of anti-ballot measure ads this season, urging people to “decline to sign.”
It was the first anti-petition campaign Colorado had ever seen. And it got ugly. Supporters of the anti-fracking measures, including volunteers, say they have been harassed and stalked while collecting signatures.
According to records obtained, CRED, which is financed largely by Texas-based companies Anadarko and Noble Energy, has spent at least $10 million since 2013 on publicity campaigns supporting fracking in Colorado. Ironically, one of the main messages for “decline to sign” was that the Yes For Health And Safety supporters, which include Frack Free Colorado, the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain chapter, Boulderites Ban Fracking, Fort Collins Community Action Network, and more than a hundred independent IndieGoGo supporters, were not from Colorado.
Elizabeth Arnold, who helped organize the petition, explained that the aggressive anti-sign messaging could have backfired.
“The people in Colorado are pissed,” Arnold said. “They are tired of being lied to and manipulated.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is method of getting oil and gas reserves out of underground shale deposits. Large volumes of water, laced with chemicals and sand, are injected into the shale, breaking it up and releasing the oil or gas trapped inside. Fracking, along with the wastewater disposal that goes with it, has been tied to earthquakes, water contamination, methane leaks, and air quality issues.
Colorado actually has the most aggressive methane rules in the country, limiting leaks from oil and gas drilling, according to Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
The practice has boomed in Colorado in the past decade, moving into residential areas in Weld and Larmar counties, Grossman said.
And with the rise in fracking, opposition has grown.
In 2014, a Colorado District Court judge ruled that the town of Longmont could not impose a ban on fracking, and the state’s Supreme Court upheld the decision (along with other attempted local bans). A previous ballot measure that would have required a 2,000-foot setback was scrapped in 2014, after legislators, the governor, and the industry agreed to a task force on oil and gas development. The task force was ordered to submit a report in early 2015, but little has come of it save for a regulatory rule-making that sought to give local communities more input. The rule didn’t go nearly far enough to appease people who were trying to get fracking out of their neighborhoods.
“That decision really energized some of the activists in these communities to move forward with their ballot initiatives,” Grossman said.
If they are approved, Initiative 75 will allow towns to go ahead with local control and Initiative 78 will prevent oil and gas development within 2,500 feet of schools, houses, and other structures. The 2,500 setback would effectively prevent fracking on 95 percent of the land in the state’s five biggest oil and gas counties.
From now, the Colorado Secretary of State has 30 days to validate the petition’s signatures. Assuming they are accepted, it is likely the opposition will launch a court challenge.
And even if the expected court challenge fails, Coloradans can expect a media blitz in coming months, as energy companies dig into their deep pockets to protect the industry.
“Industry has been gearing up for this fight for five years,” Grossman said.
For now, Coloradans opposed to fracking have a win in the books, but it’s not over yet.
“This was kind of the pre-fight, the undercard,” Grossman said. “If either of these make it onto the ballot, we’re going to see a cage match — an all-out war.”