Colorado Communities Battle Energy Industry to Build Community Rights

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On the Wattenberg shale of Colorado, it was recently reported that the Larimer Energy Action Project, an extension of the Colorado oil and gas industry, contributed $20,000 to the Fort Collins City Council campaign of Ray Martinez. With this contribution and the electoral victory of Martinez, the industry successfully extended its influence over a community defending a democratically mandated five-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling.

The industry knows that its control of the state legislature, legal system and courts is not sufficient. Community members standing up to the inherently dangerous oil and gas industry aren’t entering the effort from high political office. The movement against fracking comes from below, from the real grassroots, making local councils the logical next battleground between corporate power and community and environmental rights.

It is natural that the city councils now become contested. Prior to the recent elections in Fort Collins, as recently as February 2015, the Windsor, Colorado, city clerk refused to allow local citizens a vote on a Windsor Community Bill of Rights that would ban oil and gas drilling. All during local campaigns against fracking in 2013, city councils weighed in to push community efforts into the more controllable arenas of lobbying and letter writing. The Lafayette City Council went so far as to endorse a resolution broadly condemning the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights to ban fracking. Two weeks later, the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights passed with more than 60 percent of the popular vote, and two local candidates who endorsed the resolution were elected to the City Council.

Lafayette, Colorado, as it sits next to Weld County, one of the most densely drilled regions in the United States. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)Lafayette, Colorado, as it sits next to Weld County, one of the most densely drilled regions in the United States. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)

The oil and gas industry does not rest in its harassment of local governments. At the moment a community begins to approach drilling from even a cautionary position, town meetings find the seats packed with oil and gas employees, and community members are called in their homes by industry PR firms. Communications from law firms hired by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association are sent to city councils threatening expensive litigation and taking claims aimed squarely at the local treasuries.

Although the general trend of local councils has been to submit to state law that protects corporations – and request that their constituents do the same – two Colorado cities, Longmont and Fort Collins, did appeal lower court decisions. In the event the courts rule against the people of these municipalities, the offending laws will be considered unenforceable. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association will then have determined local law.

A New Type of Local Official

Some years ago many local people started to believe that political careers could be made and broken upon the dual issues of fracking and community rights. Where communities are not led by city councilors willing to do what is necessary to battle the inherently dangerous process of fracking and the legal system that forces it onto their constituents, local officials will be forced to choose which demands to suppress: those of the state and industry, or those of their own community members.

Lafayette citizens at City Hall, calling for the rejection of Boulder District Court Judge D.D. Mallard's decision to eliminate the ban on oil and gas drilling from the Lafayette City Charter. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)Lafayette citizens at City Hall, calling for the rejection of Boulder District Court Judge D.D. Mallard’s decision to eliminate the ban on oil and gas drilling from the Lafayette City Charter. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)

At this point, a new type of local official is beginning to emerge. Lafayette City Councilor Merrily Mazza, who ran as an independent candidate from the grassroots effort that banned fracking in the same election, built her campaign for office as a means to drive the debate around fracking and mobilize the community.

Merrily Mazza, while running for City Council, reviews petitions to place Lafayette's ban on oil and gas drilling with Lafayette City Clerk Susan Koster, 2013. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)Merrily Mazza, while running for City Council, reviews petitions to place Lafayette’s ban on oil and gas drilling with Lafayette City Clerk Susan Koster, 2013. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)

Now elected to office, she continues to build the local grassroots effort from the City Council. The difference between Mazza and conventional politicians is that she does not see resolution coming from one new official or another. She identifies the real vehicle of change as the community itself. When Boulder District Judge D.D. Mallard declared that Lafayette constituents could not write laws barring oil and gas activity from harming them, her answer was simple: “If the courts do not recognize our citizen’s authority to create laws to protect our fundamental rights, then the courts no longer are ruling from a position of democratic or moral authority. The Lafayette City Council should therefore resolve to reject the judge’s decision, and fully enforce the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights.” The Lafayette City Council has been less than welcoming to that idea.

No other Colorado politician has been willing to side with his or her citizens in this way. If the pattern plays out, Mazza will be the first of many such candidates unwilling to yield to the courts and industry at the cost of her community. And then standard campaigns and lobbying will transition into genuine historic movements.

We need more movement officials, and their qualifications are basic and important. They are pushed forward by the efforts of local community members; they see their campaigns and offices only as a means to build those local struggles; they are able to articulate the systemic nature of problems like fracking and they are willing to disobey any order that places the rights and health of their constituents below the demands of corporations and the politicians and judges that serve to advance those corporate interests.

After all, if we are not able to enact laws to protect our rights, and those laws that we do create to protect ourselves from the harms associated with projects like fracking are said to be unenforceable, by what authority are the courts and government ruling? Under what obligation are we to governmental authority that abuses the very people and communities it claims to represent?

Defying the Courts, Defending the Community

At this point, doors begin to open. For example, if a city council had a majority of members who campaigned and governed along these principles, could the local police department be ordered to enforce the laws of the community rather than the rulings of the courts and the corporations they are siding with? Could community members be empowered to enforce democratically mandated laws like the Lafayette Community Rights Amendment to Ban Fracking? Given that the officers of local communities are obligated to enforce the municipal law or charter, could the city council take a resolution that anyone acting to enforce laws designed to protect the fundamental rights of community members against industries attempting to violate the laws will not be interfered with by local law enforcement?

This is not only possible; it begins to act on the very democratic principles that we were taught from a very young age. The US Declaration of Independence itself asserts that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Colorado communities are apparently taking the document at its worth.

We have found ourselves in a time where the benefits of the law are conveyed to the few, at the cost of the many. Communities across Colorado have pushed forward to remedy this problem, and are not content to wait for the half measures and delays pouring out of our courts and government like oil from a wellhead explosion. The local officials we currently have will continue to be asked, “Which side are you on?” To the extent the answer is not “the people’s,” the movement for community rights and against fracking and corporate power will find individuals willing to build the movement to new heights.

The laws and politicians endangering our communities will change, and the ones replacing them will begin to establish the ground for a much broader struggle – one that no longer peers though the windows into the halls of power, but one that starts to take power of its own.

Campaign sign for the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights to Ban Fracking, Lafayette, Colorado, 2013. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)Campaign sign for the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights to Ban Fracking, Lafayette, Colorado, 2013. (Photo: Cliff Willmeng and East Boulder County United)