A political organization created to fight anti-oil and gas ballot measures in Colorado has raised more than $6 million dollars in the first quarter of 2016.
It shows an industry preparing for a potential battle this fall against a much less well-funded foe. Supporters of four ballot measures seeking to restrict drilling are gathering signatures across the state and have raised just tens of thousands of dollars.
The measures advocate changes to state regulations such as requiring greater distances between drilling rigs and residences and giving local governments more say in regulating the industry.
There are a lot of ways to gauge momentum in politics. However, looking at the money both sides of the fracking debate have raised so far, it does seem to be a case of David vs. Goliath.
Protect Colorado, an issue committee funded by oil and gas interests, is paying for a television ad claiming, “Natural gas can help reduce our carbon footprint. We need natural gas, and fracking helps us get it.”
As an issue committee, it can release overtly political advertising, but must report to the Colorado Secretary of State where it gets it’s money.
And the millions it’s brought in this year come largely from oil and gas companies like Noble and Anadarko. Karen Crummy is the group’s Communications Director.
“Honestly,” she said, “it is expensive to educate people.”
Right now, Protect Colorado is spending money on billboards around the Fort Collins and Denver metro areas urging people not to sign the petitions for these ballot measures, which Crummy said would wreak havoc on an important piece of Colorado’s economy.
These billboards featuring pens, clipboards, and short pithy phrases such as, “Think before you ink, it’s decline to sign.”
Largely, though, the group’s fundraising efforts are more about stockpiling ammunition in case the measures make the ballot.
“We learned in 2014 that the most important thing is to be prepared at all times,” explained Crummy.
Specifically, the four proposed amendments to the Colorado constitution and their intent are:
- Amendment 40 would give local governments the power to pass laws that protect safety, health and welfare.
- Amendment 63 gives local governments the power to pass laws, ordinances and regulations that are “protective of a healthy environment.” If state law governs the same topic prescribed in the local law, “the one more protective of a health environment shall govern.”
- Amendment 75 states that oil and gas development, including the use of hydraulic fracturing, has detrimental impacts on public health, safety, general welfare and the environment. It expressly grants to local government the power to prevent and mitigate these detrimental impacts, without “risk of preemption” from the state.
- And Amendment 78 would require a 2,500-feet setback of any new oil and gas development from any occupied structure and from areas of “special concern,” including public and community drinking water, lakes, rivers, perennial or intermittent streams, creeks, irrigation canals and riparian areas, playgrounds, permanent sports fields, amphitheaters, public parks and public open space.”
In response to proposed Amendment 78, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a report that found it would preclude future oil and gas development from 90 percent of the state’s surface area, and from 95 percent of surface area in the state’s top oil and gas producing counties, Weld, Garfield, La Plata, Rio Blanco and Las Animas.
Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and political analyst, said 2014 was the peak of the fracking expansion in Colorado, with high oil prices and drilling popping up all over the Front Range near homes and communities.
At that point, real momentum was mounting against oil and gas activity. “The environmental community was extremely potent,” Ciruli said.
It was a community led and largely funded by millionaire Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder.
Anti-fracking ballot measures were gathering signatures at that time as well, and they were doing well. It looked as if one or more could make the ballot, and potentially succeed.
Above all at that time, the industry and environmentalists seemed evenly matched, Ciruli said. “They both sort of came to the table in many ways equally balanced.”
Then, a last minute deal scrapped the ballot measures on the day signatures were due. Polis said the compromise was a “victory for the people of Colorado” in an August 2014 press conference.
The ballot measures were pulled in favor of a oil and gas task force appointed by Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, designed to bring both sides together and hammer out some policies to address community and industry concerns.
Ciruli sees that point as a high water mark for the anti-fracking movement’s momentum. But oil prices have crashed since then, and drilling has really slowed down on the Front Range.
“You just don’t quite sense the edginess,” said Ciruli, “the concern on that issue the way you did two years ago.”
This time around, the main issue committee in favor of the measures, Yes To Health And Safety Over Fracking, has brought in a little more than $50,000 so far and has already spent most of that money. Still, the ballot measure movement is undeterred.
Lauren Petrie with the Colorado Chapter of the environmental group Food and Water Watch said, “The situation we’re in now is very pivotal for the movement and people are feeling that, you know, like it’s now or never, we’ve got to do it this year.”
Her group is helping gather signatures for the ballot measures. She believes anti-fracking advocates are angry about the ballot measures that were pulled in 2014, and angry with results of the governor’s oil and gas task force that they believe didn’t go far enough.
They are also angry the Colorado Supreme Court recently struck down local fracking limitations in Fort Collins and Longmont, saying they were trumped by state law protecting the industry.
She believes all that is building momentum for the measures, which could overrule the state Supreme Court decision.
“This is our opportunity, this is our chance,” Petrie said.
Political analyst Ciruli still believes it will be a tall order: “We’re not (so) late in the cycle that they can’t make the deadline in August to turn in signatures. But, clearly time is rapidly running.”
Proponents will need 98,492 signatures by August 8th to get each of the four measures on the ballot.
This post was updated at 10:45 a.m., June 7