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Colorado Activists Set Their Sights on a Ballot Measure to Limit Drilling

Previous attempts have been blocked and current regulations disappoint.

This story was originally published on February 22, 2016 at High Country News.

Over the past two years, plummeting natural gas and oil prices have caused energy companies in Colorado to lay off thousands of employees, and put state and local governments in a pinch from declining tax revenue.

But if you thought this might cool the anti-fracking fever on the populated Front Range, you were wrong.

As 2016 began, two organizations filed petitions for statewide ballot measures that would allow communities to ban drilling and fracking within their boundaries, or effectively prohibit new drilling by greatly expanding setbacks between development and homes or other buildings. Activists are unhappy with state-level efforts to regulate the industry, and there’s enough new drilling along the populated and oil-rich area north of Denver to portend a new boom, should prices recover.

“There’s no foot coming off the gas,” says Merrilly Mazza, a councilwoman in Lafayette, near Boulder, and president of the Colorado Community Rights Network.

In 2014, Mazza and others pushed two proposed anti-fracking measures, supported by Congressman Jared Polis, D, that nearly made it onto the Colorado ballot.* But a last-minute deal, involving Polis, Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, and industry representatives, stopped both those proposals and two industry-backed countermeasures. Instead, the deal established a 21-member task force to gather community input and consider further development rules, a compromise deftly designed to help Democrats, including Hickenlooper and then-Sen. Mark Udall, support industry while appeasing concerned citizens.

But it angered fractivists, who felt abandoned, and though Hickenlooper won re-election, Udall still lost his seat to Republican Cory Gardner. The task force was a disappointment, too: New state rules were issued this January that require energy companies to consult with local governments on drilling plans in limited “urban mitigation areas,” but environmentalists say that doesn’t go far enough. And folks like Mazza remain frustrated by their inability to set local rules on energy development.

“Nothing coming out of (the task force) is for the local communities,” says Mazza, whose town, Lafayette, is among the Front Range cities and counties that have tried to control or halt drilling through local ordinances. All such efforts have been overturned in state courts, with some still working through appeals.

Bitterness was aggravated by a Boulder Weekly and Greenpeace investigation published last fall, which suggested that industry funded and unduly influenced University of Colorado Leeds School of Business research reports, which warned – right before the 2014 election – that fracking limits would harm the state economy.

Mazza’s group is circulating a petition for a “community-rights” amendment to the state Constitution. It wouldn’t specifically prohibit fracking but would broadly recognize local rights to set rules or bans on energy development and other activities. “The communities that are impacted by this are told, ‘You have no rights and it’s up to industry,’ ” Mazza says. “This is a democracy issue, and it should be the people deciding.”

Similar strategies have succeeded in New York and Pennsylvania, although a community-rights bill that passed in Mora County, New Mexico, was later rejected in state court.

Another group, Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development (CREED), has submitted 11 different versions of a ballot measure that would limit fracking and extend setbacks between wells and homes, schools, and other buildings or occupied spaces, such as parks. Some suggest a 4,000-foot setback, eight times greater than current limits and double the distance recommended in one of the aborted 2014 ballot measures. Both groups have until August to gather enough signatures for the ballot.

Industry proponents say the expanded setbacks would virtually prohibit drilling, decimating an industry that brings a reported $31.7 billion annually to Colorado. “We already have some of the toughest rules in the country. The question I have is, when is enough enough,” says Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, an organization that opposes any statewide fracking limits and backed the industry’s own 2014 ballot measures. “It seems these groups aren’t going to be happy until there’s no oil and gas at all within the state.”

Adds Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “We’re looking for solutions. The other side is looking to make things political.”

The political path holds dangers, says Charles Davis, a political science professor at Colorado State University who studies fracking rules. Framing a ballot measure as a “local-control” issue instead of an anti-drilling one is a good strategy, Davis says, but with industry slumping and also publicly supporting the task force, “the degree of urgency seems to have dissipated.” He anticipates that oil and gas groups will spend readily to oppose any drastic measures, and perhaps back their own countermeasures again.

Crummy says industry is “considering all our options.” Judging by 2014, measures could include withholding energy tax dollars from counties or cities that limit or ban fracking. But if fracking and energy development become an important election platform in Colorado, it could again challenge Democrats working both sides of the issue. Republicans are already targeting incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, considered his party’s most vulnerable incumbent and one of just 10 Democrats up for election in the US Senate this year.

“It’s a tough issue” for Democrats, and could be “a tougher sell” with voters, Davis says. “I think (an anti-fracking measure) would have a real poor chance of passing when you consider industry is still a major economic engine.”

That may be, but the activists aren’t backing off. After 2014, Mazza says, “People are utterly cynical.”

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