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In a packed and emotional meeting Tuesday night, Broomfield City Council took the first step toward approving two ordinances to increase its control over fracking and drilling.

Council members were upfront about the city’s limited power to do so. Last May, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down long-term fracking bans in Fort Collins and Longmont, ruling that state law trumps local governments when it comes to regulating or prohibiting oil and gas activity.

“We just don’t have that many tools in the toolkit,” said council member Elizabeth Law-Evans. “We turned over the toolbox, and not much fell out.”

The first ordinance would require Broomfield’s approval for the sale or transfer of any city- or county-owned property, including easements, water rights and mineral interests. The second would impose a six-month temporary moratorium on the approval of new fracking permits so that Broomfield can review and potentially strengthen its existing land use regulations.

Both the meeting room and an overflow lobby were packed with residents, most wearing stickers for community advocacy group Anthem Clean Air & Water.

Broomfield residents filled an overflow lobby at a City Council meeting, Dec. 6, 2016

Broomfield residents filled an overflow lobby at a City Council meeting, Dec. 6, 2016

More than a dozen Broomfield homeowners spoke out against what they see as the unfair and unreasonable fracking of their neighborhoods. One homeowner even cried as he described finding his dream home — with a dream view — and now feeling as though he has to move away to protect his children from oil and gas pollution.

Residents of Broomfield’s Wildgrass neighborhood recently learned Extraction Oil & Gas company will soon drill 140 horizontal wells near their homes. The wells will extend under the neighborhood to extract the valuable fossil fuels below.

Though the homeowners own their mineral rights and a majority do not want to lease them, Extraction can use what’s called a “forced pooling order” to extract them anyway. A long as one homeowner agrees to lease their minerals, forced pooling can require everyone else to follow suit.

RELATED:  FORCED POOLING IS NOT MANDATORY SWIM PRACTICE

“This isn’t just about mineral rights, this is about citizens not wanting to coexist with some 140 wells in their backyards, near schools and near the reservoir,” said one resident.

Another called Extraction “devious and opportunistic,” referencing the fact that the company’s original plan to drill 40 wells in Wildgrass had ballooned into 140 wells. “I don’t trust the industry,” she said.

Anne Carto, community outreach manager for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), expressed concern about the moratorium, saying it would hinder economic activity and deny mineral owners access to their property rights. “Rather than singling out the oil and gas industry by halting development,” she said, “I hope you will let COGA and industry members come to the table and work through your community’s unique concerns.”

The crowd booed loudly.

The City Council voted unanimously for the proposed moratorium and 8 to 1 for the property rights ordinance. Both are scheduled to come up for a second reading at a Jan. 10 meeting. Council members acknowledged that new drilling technologies have increased the size and scope of neighborhood drilling projects beyond reasonable expectations.

In a statement, Extraction spokesman Brian Cain called the hearing “part of an ongoing process” and said the company’s plan addresses residents’ concerns, “including minimizing noise, emissions and traffic otherwise associated with oil and gas development.” He said Extraction has a “commitment to continuous improvement in how we develop and operate as a community partner.”

Because the Supreme Court didn’t explicitly prohibit temporary moratoria, both residents and the Council sounded hopeful about their ability to implement a halt to new drilling until June. Several residents also suggested other regulatory options that could be within Broomfield’s power, such as imposing weight limits on roads to limit truck traffic or requiring increased financial assurances to guard against potential environmental damages.

Council member Sharon Tessier, who said she has responded to more than 200 emails from concerned residents, agreed that she felt “very duped” by Extraction Oil & Gas, calling their shift from 40 to 140 wells “unacceptable.” She then assured the community that she would work for their interests. “Our voices are louder in numbers,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get it.”

City Council also discussed the possibility of a future town hall-style meeting devoted to the issue.  

In the meantime, the council urged residents to write to their senators, representatives and Governor John Hickenlooper to demand that they make health and safety a priority.

“They have a great big toolbox,” Law-Evans said.

Photo credit: royalty free, Creative Commons, Flickr 

2 Electoral College members are suing Colorado in plan to stop Trump

…and the Republican Secretary of State unloads on the Democratic electors

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Two of Colorado’s nine national electors are taking Colorado to federal court today, challenging a law that requires them to cast their Electoral College votes for Hillary Clinton since she won the state.

The electors, both Democrats, are former state Sen. Polly Baca and Colorado Springs math teacher Bob Nemanich.

In the lawsuit, the first of its kind, according to Electoral College experts, the electors argue the U.S. Constitution allows them to vote their conscience instead of being bound by a decades-old state statute to vote for the candidate who won the state— Clinton, in this case. All 538 national electors will cast their official votes for president in their respective state capitols on Dec. 19.

The legal filings also come with a motion for a temporary restraining order aimed at stopping Colorado officials from enforcing the law. If granted, the order would prevent the state from removing and replacing any elector who doesn’t vote for Clinton. It is likely the court will have a hearing on the order before Dec. 19 when the electors are scheduled to cast their votes.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and Secretary of State Wayne Williams are the defendants in the lawsuit.

In response to being served, Williams, a Republican, used unusually harsh language, calling the lawsuit and the overall strategy “arrogant,”  “odious” and “evil.” He said the court should reject what he called an “illegal conspiracy,” and opined that the electors had succumbed to “intrigue and corruption.”

Here’s a page from the lawsuit, which Denver lawyer Jason Wesoky says he filed today in U.S. District Court:

Though they are Democrats, four of the nine Colorado electors have agreed to break with the state’s voters if they can persuade enough other electors to rally behind an alternative to Trump. They hope to deny him the White House, arguing that he is unfit for the presidency and that the Electoral College system was designed precisely as a check against such a situation.

Related: The Electoral College plan to stop Donald Trump explained

Electors are chosen based on who won the state, so all of Colorado’s electors are Democrats who were selected by their peers in the spring during party caucuses and assemblies. Because there are more Republican electors across the country than there are Democrats, an alternative to Trump likely would have to be a moderate Republican. Electors have named Mitt Romney, John McCain, Condoleezza Rice, John Kasich, Michael Bloomberg and Colin Powell as possibilities.

For their plan to succeed, the rebellious electors must deny Trump the 270 electoral votes he needs. Based on the states he won, he is currently projected to take 306 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 232.

The plan is a long shot, the electors acknowledge, but technically possible. So far only one Republican elector in Texas is on record saying he will take part in the plan. And Democrats in other states Clinton won haven’t exactly jumped to get on board. It’s unclear how many of the 538 electors even know of the plan. Republican electors in Wyoming, South Carolina and Utah, however, have told The Colorado Independent they have gotten many emails about it.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Nemanich on Saturday when he told a small group of progressive activists about his plans during a meeting at a library in downtown Colorado Springs.

Nemanich told the group he and others are approaching Republican electors to see if any might be on board. If enough Democratic and Republican electors revolt and vote for an agreed-upon alternative that denies Trump the 270 votes he needs, the U.S. House of Representatives would determine the presidency, choosing from Trump, Clinton and the third option. Or, if enough members vote for someone else they could choose the president straight from the Electoral College.

“We’re first freeing the electors to be able to vote their conscience,” Nemanich said about the aim of today’s lawsuit.

The four electors in Colorado have joined with three others in Washington state. They call themselves Hamilton Electors, a nod to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who wrote in Federalist Papers No. 68, “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

The framers set up the Electoral College as a fail-safe against direct democracy, which they did not trust. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes.

The Hamilton Electors say they should be able to vote their conscience and act as a deliberative body to choose the president if the system gets it wrong.

Twenty eight other states have laws on the books binding Electoral College members to the presidential candidate who won the state. 

But the U.S Supreme Court has left open the question of whether it is constitutional to enforce those state laws, says Wesoky, the Denver lawyer for the legal group Hamilton Defenders, which he helped create to counsel the Hamilton Electors.

“We believe it is not, under Article II and the 12th Amendment and how it is discussed by Hamilton in the federalist papers,” Wesoky told The Colorado Independent.

Secretary of State Williams said  his office will “vigorously defend the will of the people of Colorado over two faithless individuals who refuse to uphold their pledge to give voice to Colorado’s electorate at the national level.”

Here’s the lawsuit: nemanich-v-hickenlooper-complaint

Here’s the temporary restraining order: motion-for-tro-preliminary-injunction-12-6-16

Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel for Creative Commons on Flickr.

The Electoral College plan to stop Trump explained

Who are the Hamilton Electors? What do they want? Could they succeed?

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You might have heard about the Hamilton Electors, seven of the 538 members of the Electoral College who are working on a plan to use the Electoral College system to keep Donald Trump from the White House.

The movement has roots in our state, and The Colorado Independent has been all over the story for the past two weeks. But it’s a complex issue, so we thought we’d break it down.

So what is a national elector?

A national elector is a member of the Electoral College, selected by their peers months ago. Each of them will officially cast their vote for president on Dec. 19. All 538 of them across the country will travel to their respective state capitols to do so. That will be the formal act of electing our next president even though Election Day was on Nov. 8. 

Each state has as many national electors as they have members of Congress. So Colorado has nine. They are either Democrats or Republicans depending on which candidate wins the state.

And who are Colorado’s electors?

The four electors who have signed on to this stop-Trump plan are former Democratic State Sen. Polly Baca of Denver, 24-year-old Northern Arizona University grad student Micheal Baca of Fort Collins (no relation to Polly) who drives for Uber and Lyft, 34-year-old Greeley math teacher Jared Sutton, and Bob Nemanich, 59, also a math teacher, who lives in Colorado Springs.

The other five electors are Democratic activists Terry Phillips, Amy Drayer, Mary Beth Corsentino, Ann Knollman and Rollie Heath, a state senator from Boulder.

These nine Coloradans make up Colorado’s members of the Electoral College. There are nine of them because that’s how many members of Congress Colorado has based on its population. They are Democrats because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in Colorado on Election Day. If Donald Trump had won Colorado there would be nine Republican electors.

Why are the rebellious electors calling themselves ‘Hamilton Electors’?

Because they believe Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s view of the Electoral College was as a deliberative body that would act as a fail-safe against someone becoming president who is unfit for the job.

They point to Hamilton’s writings in Federalist Papers No. 68, in which Hamilton wrote, in part, “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

The Hamilton Electors might also be called “faithless electors.”

Laws in 29 states say electors must cast votes for whoever won the state, but a group of lawyers working for the Hamilton Electors says it plans to challenge those laws as unconstitutional.

So far there are four Democratic Colorado electors on record as being part of the elector revolt, three from Washington state, and one Republican elector in Texas.

Polly Baca says she has spoken to all but one of the Colorado electors and expects they’ll be on board with the eventual plan if it shakes out.

That said, Sen. Rollie Heath told The Independent last week that he’s taking a wait-and-see approach before saying anything firm.

“At this point we’re committed to vote for Hillary and a lot would have to happen to change that,” he said. “I’m going to kind of keep an open mind and see how this whole thing plays out.”

How did our Democrats in Colorado become national electors anyway?

They ran for the position in the spring during the Democratic Party’s precinct caucuses, which are neighborhood gatherings of local Democratic activists and loyal party people.

Nemanich printed business cards as part of his campaign, saying he was running as a national elector, and handed them out. He made his pitch and said he was an early supporter of Bernie Sanders. He was elected in March. At the time, he expected he would cast his vote for whoever won, either Sanders or Clinton, and that would be it because he expected the Democrat would win the national election. He thought it would be nice to see his name in the national archives.

“I just thought it would be an honor to be a national elector if called upon if the Democrat won this,” Nemanich told The Colorado Independent. “The next morning, after the election, I realized at that moment that this was not going to be a ceremonial situation.”

Some party activists running for national elector even ran on the platform that they would not vote for whoever won the state. One of them was TC Bell, who lives in Colorado’s 1st Congressional District.

“At the time I was actively telling people that if I was elected I would refuse to cast my ballot for Hillary or Trump as a way to protest the Electoral College system and stand up for the millions of Coloradans who refused to vote for either candidate,” he says.

Bell lost to Micheal Baca, who kickstarted the potential elector revolt shortly after Election Day.

OK, so what is their plan exactly?

The Hamilton Electors believe Trump is unfit for the presidency for a variety of reasons and so they believe they can use their positions in the Electoral College to keep him from becoming president— if enough of them agree to help.

Their plan is this: Persuade enough fellow electors to join them in rallying around someone else. Because more national electors are Republicans, they assume the alternative would have to be a Republican. And even as Democrats they are OK with that because it’s likely a Republican they might choose— Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s name was at the top of the list — would be better than Trump. (Kasich shot down a trial balloon already, saying in a Dec. 6 statement that while the effort is well-meaning, he thought it would divide the country even further. “The election is over,” he said. “Now is the time for all of us to come together as Americans.”)

“I think we all agree that Mr. Trump is a danger to this country,” says Polly Baca of her elector colleagues in Colorado. “I have been involved in every presidential race since 1960 and this is the first time that I am literally in fear for my country because of this particular person.”

Baca stresses that Trump is “not the president-elect” until the 538 members of the Electoral College cast their votes on Dec. 19. 

How many other electors would they need to persuade?

A candidate needs to win 270 Electoral College votes to become president. Donald Trump has 306 projected votes to Clinton’s 232. That means there are 306 Republican electors and 232 Democratic electors.

So the Hamilton Electors would need all 232 Democrats to go along with a Trump alternative as well as 38 Republicans. In other words, they need a miracle.

Another way: If enough Trump electors defected to deny Trump his 270-vote majority, then the election would go to U.S. House of Representatives and members of Congress would choose the president from among the three top vote-getters in the Electoral College. Each state’s House delegation would get one vote, so the presidency would boil down to a simple majority of 26 votes.

Just to be clear: So far these are Democrats who say they won’t vote for Clinton?

Yes. It sounds counterintuitive.

Nemanich, the math teacher from the Springs, says it is important for his fellow Coloradans to know that when they voted on Election Day for president, really, they were voting for nine people who weren’t even on the ballot.

“So essentially, all my Democratic voters here in the Democratic part of town here, they weren’t voting for Hillary Clinton,” he says. “They were voting for the nine of us— but they didn’t know it.”

Law Professor Greg Magarian of Washington University in St. Louis says it’s like how you steer a car: “You turn the steering wheel and you’re not controlling the car, you’re turning the steering wheel and you’re making the wheels turn and the wheels are controlling the car.”

In other words, the presidential candidate is the steering wheel, the electors are the wheels.

So it makes sense that some Clinton supporters in Colorado who voted for her would want the state’s nine electors to cast their votes for Clinton regardless of how those electors feel about Trump.

“He needs to cast his vote for Clinton — she won our state and he is a Democrat,” commented one reader on a recent story about one of our electors. “He’s a smart guy. Hillary Clinton took Colorado so it’s clear. I’m sure he won’t change his vote to an ‘also ran,’” wrote another.

Addressing that has proven a hurdle for some of Colorado’s Hamilton Electors when explaining what they are trying to do.

Just watch this video of Nemanich making his pitch to a skeptical fellow Democrat at a library in Colorado Springs on Saturday.

Are there any Republican electors talking about this?

There are now.

A Republican elector in Texas named Christopher Suprun wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday saying he could not vote for Trump and urged his fellow electors to rally behind an alternative.  

Others, though, have panned the idea. A GOP elector in South Carolina, Matt Moore, who chairs the state party and has been bombarded with emails, told The Independent he thinks the effort is “ridiculous.”

Closer to Colorado, Republican elector Karl Allred in Wyoming says Trump might not have been his first choice for president, but the voters in his state elected him in his position to represent their views. Trump won Wyoming.

“If I was to do anything other than represent the view of the voters who placed their trust in me that would be dishonest,” Allred told The Independent. But, he says, everyone has heard about the movement and what’s going on in the Electoral College. He has gotten plenty of inquiries about it, too.

In Utah, Republican elector Kris Kimball, one of six in that state, told The Independent she plans to cast her vote for Trump even though he wasn’t her first choice in the GOP primary.

“The other electors, they feel a responsibility to represent the voice of Utah,” she said, adding that the state’s voters “wanted Donald Trump.”

Asked what she might do if the courts said she could vote for whomever she wanted on Dec. 19, she said, “I would have to wait and see. I don’t know until I see that happen. At this point in time I have to go with how the people in Utah voted. I was elected to represent whatever the outcome of the election was.”

What about the laws in 29 states requiring electors to cast their votes for candidate who wins the state?

Lawyers for the Hamilton Electors say they plan to challenge those state laws as unconstitutional.

A nationwide group of lawyers called Hamilton Defenders says it is working on lawsuits right now. Lawyers for the group also say they are willing to defend any potential elector who agrees to become faithless or offer any other support and counsel to electors thinking about it.

Potential electors can confidentially correspond with a Hamilton Defender attorney at the group’s website.

Their first lawsuit hit Colorado Tuesday, Dec. 6.

And this could go down quite a quick legal rabbit hole. Say a raft of lawsuits hits several states in multiple federal jurisdictions, judges rule differently, and the parties appeal? Supreme Court, here we come.

The state laws have been efforts to stop electors from going “faithless,” says George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and author of the book “Why The Electoral College is Bad for America.” But, Edwards adds, they have never been enforced, and in his opinion they are unconstitutional.

“The Framers expected electors to exercise discretion,” he told The Independent.

Is this movement all about stopping Trump?

That is the ultimate goal, but there might also be a consolation prize.

The Electoral College, while obviously an important aspect of American democracy, is not that well known as an institution among the general public. The system has its defenders and its critics.

Some of the Hamilton Electors believe their movement might bring enough public attention to how the Electoral College actually works, that even if it fails it has done some public good.

Democratic New York Congressman Charlie Rangel and California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer have filed bills to abolish the Electoral College, and Bernie Sanders has called for an assessment of the system.

The Broadway show ‘Hamilton’ is a smash hit right now in pop culture. Isn’t life weird?

Yeah, it is.

So let’s talk about Hamilton the Founding Father and Electoral College guy, not the musical, for a moment. What might he think of all this?

Traditionally, the Electoral College has not acted as an independent deliberative body, so it’s hard to say Hamilton’s master plan of the minor elite overriding the mob has worked in practice. Instead the Electoral College has settled in as a rubber stamp for the winner-take-all model among the states, especially with all those state laws binding the votes.

Magarian, the Wash U law professor, wonders if Hamilton was maybe a bit too quick to dismiss the wisdom of democracy for a system created to channel the wisdom of elites.

“If you want to trace the irony a little bit further, Trump is in some ways Hamilton’s populist nightmare, but he’s also in other ways Hamilton’s kind of guy,” Magarian says. “Wealthy, well established, varied property, businessman. Donald Trump’s resume to Alexander Hamilton— without showing [anything else]— I think Hamilton might look at a guy like Trump and say, ‘Oh, OK, here this is the sort of person I might expect my beloved elite body to select.”

And also, think about this: Who are Colorado’s current elites, per Hamilton? A sitting and former state senator, sure, but also a graduate student employed as an independent contractor in the sharing economy and two math teachers— one of whom told The Independent in his first interview, “I’m just an average schmuck.”

 

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This story was originally published by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition

After months of work by stakeholders, proposed 2017 legislation is taking shape that would modernize the Colorado Open Records Act and provide an alternative to litigation for resolving CORA disputes.

Despite the progress, however, a formidable roadblock surfaced Friday when the Colorado Attorney General’s office announced that it will not support the most recent bill draft.

“We think the bill … creates more problems than it cures” and will make CORA “more complicated and more vague,” Chief Deputy AG David Blake wrote in a statement read aloud during a meeting of the CORA Working Group.

The working group, chaired by Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert, includes journalists, lawyers, citizen watchdogs and representatives from various state agencies, public universities and local governments. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has had a seat at the table for both the CORA Working Group and a supporting “technical” subcommittee.

The talks sprung from the defeat last spring of SB 16-037, a proposal to update CORA for the 21st century by requiring that Colorado governments provide digitally stored data “in a machine-readable standard format routinely used by the official custodian.”

That bill, introduced by Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, was intended to solve a problem faced by requesters of public records in Colorado: Database records sometimes are released in formats (paper or PDFs) that make analysis difficult. And governments sometimes withhold entire datasets that contain confidential fields of information, such as Social Security numbers. Instead of redacting private portions and releasing the rest, some records custodians say they are not required by law to “create a new record.”

Some critics of SB 16-037 said it didn’t adequately address issues such as cost recovery for government entities, the protection of confidential information and what will – and won’t – be required of records custodians when they get requests for records kept in databases and spreadsheets.

The proposed 2017 legislation specifically addresses these concerns while also clarifying that records kept as structured data or in other searchable electronic formats can be requested in similar formats. It also clarifies that the altering of an existing public record to excise confidential fields of information does not constitute the creation of a new record under CORA.

In exchange for such new language in CORA, government entities received assurances they won’t be burdened with extra costs or required to make copies of databases if they aren’t technologically able to do so.

The 2017 proposal also would establish a three-year trial period for resolving open-records disputes through mediation. In Colorado, unlike in many other states, going to court is now the only legal remedy afforded records requesters who believe that a government or agency has violated the open-records law.

The bill would incentivize records requesters to try mediation by making it extremely difficult to recover court costs and attorney fees if they head to court right away. If requesters try mediation, and it doesn’t work, they would still recover some costs if they prevail in court. But if they don’t try mediation and prevail in court, the recovery of costs and attorney fees would be tied to a hard-to-prove finding that a records denial was “arbitrary and capricious.”

In his statement Friday, Deputy AG Blake wrote that his office has “zero doubt that if passed as drafted, (the bill) will result in an increase in litigation.” Although he “does not disagree with the policy behind the mediation piece,” Blake contended that the bill “fundamentally changes the balanced incentive structure CORA has struck.”

“We don’t believe this bill accomplishes the stated goal of resolving disputes out of court. In fact, the mediation system as drafted, we believe, will likely add another level of bureaucracy without any significant benefit.”

Blake didn’t cite specific aspects of the digital records portion of the bill but complained that it doesn’t “adequately address that issue and is more problematic.” He wrote that “CORA should be modernized to keep up with the technological realities of today’s world, but we think the bill that has come out of this working group creates more problems than it cures.”

The CORA Working Group is scheduled to meet again in two weeks. A draft must be finalized by late December to make the deadline for Kefalas to introduce the bill soon after the legislative session begins on Jan. 11.

 

Photo credit: Gisela Giardino, Creative Commons, Flickr

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“University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton on Monday responded to a petition drive asking UNC officials to declare UNC a ‘sanctuary campus,'” reports The Greeley Tribune. “The sanctuary campus movement, with roots in the sanctuary city movement, has taken higher education by storm in the past few weeks, with petitions at more than 150 institutions and numerous institutions taking steps to protect students without proper documentation.”

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reports on a win in court by Western Slope water users. “Western Slope interests led by the Grand Valley Water Users’ Association prevailed in the Colorado Supreme Court in a major water case Monday involving transmountain diversions to the Front Range. In a 5-2 decision, the high court ruled that a water court in Pueblo erred in concluding that storage of transmountain water rights on the Eastern Slope was lawful despite the lack of a water court decree allowing for the water’s storage prior to its use for its decreed purpose.”

“Several Longmont City Council members said on Monday night that they and their constituents want assurances that a proposed affordable-housing project, and its residents, will be compatible with other homes and businesses in the downtown Longmont area,” reports The Longmont Times-Call. “The council members’ comments came during and after a joint meeting they and city staff members had with Boulder County Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner and members of the county staff.”

The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent warns readers to be careful around a herd of wild bighorn sheep that has been hanging around town. “One of the bigger concerns is that the sheep are still in their rut season, so the rams can be very aggressive,” Dan Cacho, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told the paper. “If people get too close, you might get one of the rams, or even the ewes, try to charge. That’s always a concern with any large wildlife.”

“The city of Steamboat Springs is suing a developer and a property owner to try and save a historic barn that the defendants have been neglecting for years near the base of Steamboat Ski Area,” reports Steamboat Today. “The city’s lawsuit claims the developer, RP Steamboat Springs, and the property owner, RCS-Wildhorse Land, LLC, should be maintaining the 88-year-old Arnold Barn per the conditions of a development agreement, which was signed in 2006.”

The Boulder Daily Camera reports on an elusive compromise for a housing cooperative. “The limitations written into the latest drafted version of Boulder’s new co-operative housing ordinance are such that if the ordinance were adopted today, only about 1 percent of the city’s total housing stock would be eligible for co-ops, and a maximum of about 150 people would become licensed co-op residents.”

“Mayor Preston Troutman during Monday’s regular city council meeting admonished the City of Cañon City, stating it is mostly to blame for so many older buildings sitting vacant because of stringent codes,” reports The Cañon City Daily Camera. “As the council continues to look for ways the city can proactively help potential business owners bring their business to the area and change the culture, Troutman said there is no way the city’s current codes and zoning requirements fit the older buildings located in the downtown and other areas in Cañon City.”

The Fort Collins Coloradoan localized the pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. “Fort Collins resident Liz Bunya first realized a major oil pipeline could infringe on Native American land rights in 2012, years before the simmering standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline started between the pipeline company, law enforcement and protesters.”

“A Pentagon-commissioned study in 2015 found the Defense headquarters wasted $125 billion. But upon learning of the study’s results, military leaders ordered the findings never be released to the press or public, according to a report published Monday evening,” reports The Washington Examiner on on the front page of The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “In January 2015, the Pentagon learned it could cut $125 billion in administrative costs at the Arlington, Va., facility over the next five years. But Defense leaders chose to keep the report secret in fear lawmakers would cut funding, the Washington Post found.”

The Denver Post reports funds are tight for local police. “All of this growth is happening as Denver’s public safety agencies still are trying to dig themselves out of the cuts made during the Great Recession — a period when the city saw its emergency services fall behind in recruiting and maintaining equipment.”

 

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Hospitals and doctors across Colorado are preparing for a new law that will soon allow qualified, terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of barbiturates to voluntarily end their lives.

Medical aid-in-dying, known to its critics as assisted suicide, was passed overwhelmingly by voters in November and will be legal in Colorado by Jan. 9. Given the law’s requirements, it could be late January before patients begin obtaining prescriptions for needed drugs.

Still, says Kat West, policy director of aid-in-dying advocacy group Compassion & Choices, the main backers of the measure. “I can tell you, on day one, patients are going to be asking about it.”  West uses California as a model, which saw patient requests as soon as the law went into effect on June 9 this year.

State voters passed medical aid-in-dying by a two-thirds majority on election night. Colorado will soon become the fifth state in the nation to pass an aid-in-dying law, along with Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California. Montana has no such law, but the state Supreme Court ruled that aid-in-dying is not illegal there.  

Medical aid-in-dying, known as ballot measure Proposition 106, will allow terminally ill Colorado residents to legally obtain a lethal dose of a barbiturate medication. Patients be at least 18 years old, have a terminal illness diagnosis with six months or fewer to live, be of sound mind and have the approval of two different physicians to qualify. The medication must be self-administered.

Compassion & Choices is launching a “massive” outreach campaign later this week, with programming for both physicians and potential patients. Eight action teams across the state will give presentations about the law to senior centers, colleges and other locations make sure potential patients understand their rights. A medical provider advocate team, comprised mostly of physicians, will offer education and technical assistance to doctors and medical facilities across the state. The group has also developed print and online resources, videos, mailers and a series of webinars to help get the word out.

“We are trying to ensure that not only do we have a law in Colorado, but that people have access to that law,” says West. “We need to normalize it and integrate it into the standard of care.”

Hospitals, hospices and health care centers can opt out of the law, and individual care providers may choose not to participate even if their hospitals do.

 

What is the difference between aid-in-dying, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia?

For the most part, the different terms reflect the groups who use them.

In developing the 2016 ballot measure, proponents used “medical aid-in-dying” to describe the process of patients self-administering prescribed medication to induce a peaceful death.

Opponents to Proposition 106, such as disability rights activists and groups affiliated with the Catholic Church, tend to use the term “assisted suicide,” arguing that “aid-in-dying” is a euphemism that inaccurately describes the process.

“Euthanasia” is the process by which a physician administers medication to assist a patient in dying, and is illegal in all 50 states. California’s aid-in-dying prohibits the practice from being referred to as “euthanasia” or “assisted suicide.”

 

What’s the timeline?

On Thursday, Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office will verify the votes in the 2016 election. The next day, Gov. John Hickenlooper will certify the results, after which he will have a month to sign each ballot measure into law. Ballot measures automatically become law within 30 days, even without the governor’s signature, which means that medical aid-in-dying will become official no later than Jan. 9. Interested patients actually can begin requesting medication now, in preparation for the law’s passage.

Requests cannot be fulfilled immediately, however. To be able to receive aid-in-dying medication, patients must make verbal requests to two different physicians, including their primary care physician, at least 15 days apart. Both physicians must diagnose the patient as terminally ill, observe mental capability and evaluate that the patient is not being coerced into requesting the medication.

Still, says Compassion & Choice’s West, physicians need to be proactive in their preparation: “We tell providers that if you start to think about this only when your patient requests it, it’s too late.”

 

What kind of drugs are used, and what do they cost?

In medical literature, the two most commonly cited drugs for the purposes of aid-in-dying are Nembutal (known generically as pentobarbital) and Seconal (known generically as secobarbital).

Pentobarbital, a barbiturate, was an effective and inexpensive aid-in-dying drug for many years. However, its use as a lethal injection drug for executions recently prompted manufacturers to stop producing it for the United States. Access is now extremely limited, even for use in hospitals as a sedative.

Seconal, a barbiturate-derivative used for the treatment of epilepsy, insomnia and as an anesthetic for minor surgical procedures, is still routinely prescribed to patients seeking a painless, voluntary death. But after California passed aid-in-dying earlier this year, the drug’s manufacturer, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, took advantage of the new market and doubled the price. A lethal dose of Seconal now costs $3,000, a price that many people on fixed incomes find prohibitive. In 2009, the same dose cost only $200. There currently is no generic version of Seconal available in the U.S.

Other aid-in-dying drugs exist, but are less commonly prescribed. To combat high prices, doctors have discovered a new drug cocktail that they say works just as well — and retails for only $500. A team of physicians from aid-in-dying advocacy group Doctors with the End of Life developed a mix of three drugs — phenobarbital, chloral hydrate, and morphine sulfate — which are mixed in powdered form and taken with water, alcohol or juice.

This medication is, according to Compassion & Choices’ West, “the most affordable and available,” but it is only available from compounding pharmacies, which are more rare.

Still, West is optimistic about the range of available drugs, and insists that “there is no problem getting them.”

 

Does insurance cover the drugs?

Colorado’s new law doesn’t require insurance companies to cover aid-in-dying medication. Compassion & Choices’ West says most insurance companies do cover the drug, especially now that California has passed a law, but there’s no guarantee.

A patient’s decision to request aid-in-dying medication will have no effect on annuities, advanced medical directives or health, accident or life insurance policies. Physicians must list the patient’s terminal illness as the cause of death on the death certificate.

 

Do doctors need additional training?

No. Licensed physicians in Colorado need no additional training or certification to prescribe aid-in-dying medication or to serve as consulting physicians.

Physicians are required to make a record any time an individual requests the medication, documenting that the patient is terminally ill, has six months or fewer to live, was not coerced into requesting the medication and is in good mental health. According to the law, the primary physician must provide “full and specific information to the individual about his or her diagnosis and prognosis; alternatives or additional treatment opportunities, such as hospice or palliative care; and the potential risks and probable results associated with taking the medication.”

Doctors must also inform each patient that he or she may choose not to use the medication, even if it is prescribed, and may withdraw his or her request at any time. If either the primary or consulting physician feels a patient is not mentally capable of making an informed decision about receiving the medication, they must refer the patient to a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, who must deem the patient mentally competent before the request process may proceed.

Compassion and Choices’ West says that physicians must be licensed and have primary responsibility for a patient’s terminal illness. In other words, she says, “a podiatrist would not qualify.” For the most part, she says, it has mostly been family practitioners who prescribe the medication in Oregon, along with some oncologists and some hospice medical directors.

 

Who will offer it?

It’s still too early to tell how many hospitals and physicians will participate in providing aid-in-dying to Coloradans.

According to Amber Burkhart, a policy analyst for the Colorado Hospital Association, healthcare facilities must decide whether to opt in or out of the law, and establish policies to go along with their position. Within those policies, individual physicians can always decide to opt out of participating.

Compassion & Choices has sent out mailers to inform physicians and hospitals of the new law, and ensure that they feel prepared to offer aid-in-dying if they so choose. The organization also plans to develop a “Find Care Tool” on their website, which will allow interested patients to find the nearest facilities that honor the right to aid-in-dying under the law.

“When people are thinking about getting a doctor or getting insurance, they will have the information they need to choose healthcare providers who will honor their decisions,” says Burkhart.

But the Colorado Hospital Association “does not have a position and neither encourages nor discourages” healthcare providers to provide aid-in-dying, says Burkhart. “We’re just focused on providing support,” she says.

Sonja Hix-Cortina, a spokeswoman for the Home Care Association of Colorado, says the board is still discussion the issue and hasn’t formalized a policy for the association yet.

 

What about the Catholic Church?

Though it’s too early to tell how many physicians will provide aid-in-dying, hospitals, physicians and hospice centers affiliated with the Catholic Church will almost certainly not participate.

Catholic hospitals follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, a set of rules put out by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops that guides care for affiliated hospitals. The directives, which call medical aid-in-dying “intrinsically immoral,” say that “Dying patients who request euthanasia should receive loving care, psychological and spiritual support, and appropriate remedies for pain and other symptoms so that they can live with dignity until the time of natural death.”

Michael Romano, the national media relations director for Catholic Health Initiatives, isn’t ready to give a statement about participation in medical aid-in-dying, but says The Colorado Independent should read between the lines. The Catholic Health Initiatives website states that affiliated hospitals and health centers must follow the church directives. “Clearly, if Catholic Health Initiatives follows the directives, we’re not going to be doing assisted suicide,” Romero says.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s 2016 report, “Growth of Catholic hospitals and health systems,” between 30 and 39 percent of acute care beds in Colorado are in facilities that are Catholic owned or affiliated.

 

Is the battle over aid-in-dying finally over?

Though aid-in-dying passed nearly 2-to-1 in Colorado, the controversy surrounding it rages on. And it’s not just the Catholic Church — disability rights activists and physicians who simply disagree with the practice have spoken out against the practice. In California, opposition groups even filed a lawsuit looking to overturn the aid-in-dying law.

Though there is no evidence yet as to whether Colorado will see similar lawsuits, opponents continue to make their voices heard.

Dr. Bill Bolthouse, a physician at a Denver health clinic that primarily serves low-income patients, says his arguments have nothing to do with religion. “I’m not Catholic, but on this side of things I guess we’re on the same team,” he says. To him, aid-in-dying is a violation of the Hippocratic oath, in which doctors promise to do no harm to their patients.

Bolthouse also sees it as “dangerous for people on the margins,” whom he often treats at the health center. He worries that people without financial resources will see aid-in-dying as a cheap alternative to costly treatments.

Dr. Thomas Perille, a retired physician who worked as an internist for 20 years, also opposes the new law. He fears it will become a slippery slope, with doctors developing a tendency to “resort to euthanasia instead of providing care.”

It’s hard to imagine a doctor suggesting aid-in-dying over treatment, but Bolthouse says change could be on the horizon. “If Medicaid says, ‘Well that treatment is experimental or that treatment is too expensive, we’re not going to pay for it, but we will pay for your life-ending medication,’ it kind of justifies not paying for something expensive,” he says. Bolthouse referenced a case in 2008 of a woman named Barbara Wagner who received a letter from her insurance company, which said the experimental cancer treatment she sought wasn’t covered. Aid-in-dying, however, was listed among the treatments which were covered in full.

Wagner ultimately received the treatment, but the incident prompted California to include a provision in its law that insurance companies cannot tell patients who aren’t requesting aid-in-dying medication whether or not they cover the cost. Colorado’s new law prohibits insurance companies from refusing treatment based on the availability of aid-in-dying medication.

Bolthouse also says the rise aid-in-dying demonstrates a deteriorating relationship between doctors and patients. “I think as doctors become more distant from their patients, as we hide behind our screens in clinical situations, we stop touching our patients, we stop looking them in the eye, we stop treating them like human beings,” he says. “It’s not medicine. I don’t know what it is, but its not medicine.”

Dr. Cory Carroll, a physician with a private practice in Fort Collins, supports medical aid-in-dying. He doesn’t think doctors should be able to make decisions on behalf of their patients, saying instead that “there should be a separation between church and medicine.” Carroll understands why people oppose aid-in-dying, but believes each patient should be able to make their own decision. “People can look at this as being wrong and immoral, but is it something criminal that should be denied?”

Carroll also thinks aid-in-dying will help close the gap between the humane way that medical professionals tend to die, and the prolonged suffering patients often endure in an attempt to live longer.

“What I do know is how physicians die, and the reason why is that we know what it looks like,” he says. “We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep our bodies alive.”

Perille disagrees. “I’m quite aware of what the limitations of medical interventions are, and I don’t have any desire to be on a ventilator or chemotherapy with a low percentage chance of working,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean i want to kill myself.”

Calling aid-in-dying “false compassion,” Perille says people may request medication when there are other, solvable problems at play, like pain or depression. “There are people that I’ve met that have terminal illnesses who will tell me they want to die, and then you address the issues that cause them to feel that way, and months later they have a much different perspective,” he says.

But that argument falls flat with Carroll, who has seen what happens when his patients can’t access the aid-in-dying they’re looking for.

“As a physician of 25 years, I’ve had many many patients ask me to help them die,” he says. “Some have been successful — with bullets.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the Montana Supreme Court ruled that aid-in-dying is not illegal, but is also not a guaranteed right under state law. 

Photo credit: The Javorac, Creative Commons, Flickr 

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The owners of Roybal Construction have agreed to drop their contract-discrimination lawsuit against Denver Public Schools, saying they have decided to pursue a less adversarial approach.

“It’s an attempt to get some meaningful discussions without the tensions of a lawsuit,” Ronald Roybal told The Colorado Independent.

Roybal and his brother Michael, co-owners of Roybal Construction, filed the discrimination suit in July. Several reports have confirmed their argument that the ethnic makeup of DPS contract recipients does not mirror the city’s overall diversity. But on Friday, the plaintiffs agreed to dismiss the suit, saying they preferred to work with DPS to find solutions in a less antagonistic setting.

The Roybals agreed to a “stipulated motion to dismiss without prejudice,” which means that the Roybals can choose to re-file if their efforts to reconcile with DPS outside the courtroom are not fruitful.

“The district will continue to meet and collaborate with the Roybals on ways DPS can continue to improve the school system’s MWBE program,” DPS spokesman Will Jones said in an email. “The Roybals and DPS are now at a level of trust and collaboration which provided the opportunity for this dismissal.”

Roybal said that the financial burden of legal action contributed to their decision.  “Small businesses like ours don’t have the resources to enter into long-term lawsuits, so we prefer to have discussions and make changes without the tensions,” he said.

DPS’s questionable contracting, and the Roybals’ skepticism, stretches back several years. In 2014, a district-commissioned report showed troubling disparities in representation for women and minorities among contract awardees.

The district also awarded only two percent of its construction contracts for a 2008 school bond to minority-owned construction companies. That’s in a city that is at least 30 percent Latino and 11 percent black. The revelation led several businesses to withdraw their support for this year’s school bond measures, 3A and 3B. The measures ultimately passed.

In response to the 2014 report, DPS implemented programs to increase diversity in its awardees.

But Roybal says that DPS exaggerates those programs’ success. He says that the numbers the district touts seem like a positive development on their face, but because DPS tends to award contracts to minority-owned businesses that are large and outside Colorado, they are presenting a false narrative.

“DPS is really good at spinning numbers,” he said. “The spirit of the program was to help small, local, minority-owned businesses. The reality is that they’re not utilizing small, local minority businesses in any meaningful way.”

DPS did not respond to requests for comment on the program in time for this story’s deadline.

Roybal also finds a certain hypocrisy in the district’s failures to fulfill its diversity promises.

“The voters that voted for [3A & 3B] included a huge contingency of minority families,” Roybal said. “DPS tends to come to our community to ask for support, and then turn their backs on the community they’re supposed to be representing.”

Still, he’s optimistic that DPS will agree to pursue satisfactory measures toward equitable contracting, if only because of prevailing sentiment in the district. “The general public has seen that these things are not equitable,” he said. “We’re hopeful that, after all the negative discussions we’ve been having, maybe something positive will come out of it.”

 

Photo Credit: lesbian heart, Creative Commons, Flickr

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With a new pro-fossil fuels administration headed to Washington, Republicans in the state Senate are seizing the opportunity to shore up Colorado’s sluggish mining and natural resources economy.

Republican Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction will chair a five-member Select Committee on Energy and the Environment that could deal with “the increased workload an evolving relationship with Washington could bring,” according to a Senate GOP press release.

“The changes in attitude and approach we’re expecting from the Trump administration will only add to the importance and relevance of the work this select committee will do,” according to Senate President-elect Kevin Grantham of Canon City.

The committee is expected to hold hearings on energy policy, but any legislation proposed must still be heard by the Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee. The select committee’s role will be to handle “the growing demand for more study, deeper discussion and innovative policy ideas,” according to Scott’s statement. What that discussion and study will entail or what innovative policy might be proposed isn’t immediately clear. Scott did not return a call for further comment.

Joining Scott on the committee: Republican Sens. John Cooke of Greeley and Kevin Priola of Henderson, as well as Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver and Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville.

Guzman today named Jones deputy minority leader for conservation, clean energy and climate change, a new position. He will be the Democrats’ point man on energy and conservation-related legislation. Jones has been the Senate Democrats’ leader on supporting the clean energy industry, including how to address climate change.

“Regardless of what direction the new Administration wants to take our country in the areas of renewable energy or fighting climate change, Colorado needs to stay ahead of the curve as it has done for years,” Jones said in a statement today. “It is integral to our identity and our brand as a state to have clean air, clean water, and protected public lands, all of which are major reasons why we have such a booming tourism industry.”

Guzman told The Colorado Independent that while she doesn’t yet know what the committee will do, Democrats have their own goals on energy. “It is a major interest of our caucus this year to support renewable and clean energy and to continue to work on concerns about climate change,” she said.

But Republicans like Cooke, who comes from oil-rich Weld County, said the time had come to put “Colorado energy consumers first by embracing energy policies guided by practical reality, not extreme ideology.”

“Energy is one of the two or three top economic engines driving Colorado’s economy, so we must find a way to support those jobs and revenues while also protecting the natural places that make Colorado special,” Cooke said in the release. “Reliable and affordable energy are too important to Colorado’s energy consumers and business climate to not pursue a truly all-of-the-above approach, which includes coal, oil and gas, renewables and maybe even nuclear.”

Will the new committee butt heads with Gov. John Hickenlooper? Hickenlooper, a former geologist, has been seen as pro-oil and gas, but he also has said he plans to keep Colorado on its current path. Last month, the governor said the state will proceed with its version of the Clean Power Plan regardless of may happen in Washington. He also has said he opposes auctioning off Colorado’s public lands for commerce and industry.

Colorado is a top 10 state for natural resources and energy production, but those activities have been in a slump for the past two years, with less demand for coal and low oil prices.

Mining industry gross domestic product, a key measure of the value of its output, has declined by 56.6 percent in the past two years, down $10.8 billion between the first quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2016, according to a September economic forecast from the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. That same forecast noted that in 2014, there were 68 oil and gas drilling rigs operating in the state, when oil was valued at about $105 per barrel. Today, with oil at about $52 per barrel, there are only 25 active drilling rigs in the state, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The forecast also noted a Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank survey in July of the oil and gas industry in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. That survey estimated oil prices would have to increase to about $64 per barrel for drilling to pick up again.

And any changes favoring the industry won’t likely show up for at least a year or more.

An annual economic outlook report from the Leeds School of Business at CU-Boulder said today that Colorado would rank among the top 10 states for job creation in 2017. The report predicts the state’s economy to add more than 63,000 jobs in every non-agricultural sector except energy in 2017.

The number of jobs in natural resources and mining will drop slightly in 2017, although Colorado is still in the top 10 nationally in gold, coal, molybdenum and oil and gas production, the report said.

In 2015, the oil and gas industry employed about 31,000 workers; in 2017, it’s anticipated that the industry will provide jobs to about 23,000 workers. The industry shed 25 percent of its jobs in 2016, the report said.

Oil production is expected to generate about $5 billion this year, with natural gas at about $4.1 billion. The total expected from the oil and gas industry is around $9.6 billion, down from $15.8 billion just two years ago. Severance taxes, the taxes paid to the state by the industry for “severing” the oil and gas from the land, are projected to total about $19 million this year, a 93.3 percent decrease from 2015, according to the Leeds report.

Those severance taxes pay to mitigate the impact of oil and gas production on local communities, and those dollars also pay for Colorado Water Conservation Board projects. The board is charged with implementing the state’s water plan.

In 2017, there is little expectation for change in the natural resources sector, both in Colorado and nationally, even with a Republican Congress and a Republican president. But, the Leeds report said, the industry may become more optimistic about new investments in the long term, and the Trump administration and Congress are likely to relax regulations on federal lands and to approve projects such as the Keystone pipeline.

 

Photo credit: Jimmy Thomas, Creative Commons, Flickr. 

Lawyer group ‘Hamilton Defenders’ forms to counsel Electoral College members, sue states

“We’ve got volunteer attorneys in, I think, now 20-plus states,” one lawyer says. 

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A group of attorneys from around the country has launched a legal fund to defend members of the Electoral College or challenge laws in certain states that require national electors to cast votes for the presidential candidate who won that state.

The group, Hamilton Defenders, is a nonprofit, according to filings with the Texas Secretary of State.

The name is a nod to Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who viewed the Electoral College as a  safeguard against anyone who didn’t have “the requisite qualifications” from becoming president. 

Twenty-nine states have laws on their books saying a national elector must cast his or her vote for the presidential contender who won their state. But the lawyers argue such laws are unconstitutional.

The Hamilton Defenders aim to file lawsuits on behalf of any national elector who wants to challenge their state’s law, and to represent electors if any actions are brought against them for voting their conscience, said Elizabeth Basden, a Texas attorney and the registered agent for Hamilton Defenders. 

On Dec. 19, all 538 national electors are scheduled to cast their votes in their respective state capitols. Because of recent national attention on Colorado’s nine electors, C-SPAN wants to televise the proceedings in Denver. 

Following the election of Donald Trump on Nov. 8, who is projected to win 306 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232, a handful of electors from Colorado and Washington have a launched a movement to see if they can convince enough the other 538 electors in the country to choose someone other than Trump for president. 

The Electoral College is the reason a president can win the White House without winning the nation’s popular vote. That happened in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won more votes across the country, but Republican George W. Bush took the White House when the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida, thus giving him more electoral votes.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution set up this system as a check against direct democracy, which they did not trust. Because of it, each state is allotted a number of electors based on how many members of Congress the state has. In most states, the winner of the popular vote, no matter how slim the margin, takes all of that state’s electoral votes. The nominee who reaches 270 or more Electoral College votes wins the presidency no matter who racked up more actual ballots cast.

This year, Hillary Clinton won more than 2.5 million more votes nationally than Trump, but Trump took more projected votes in the Electoral College. Polly Baca, a national elector from Colorado and a former Democratic state senator, says Trump is not the president-elect until the Electoral College actually votes.

Because there are more Republican electors nationally than Democrats, any Trump alternative— should the elector revolt plan come to fruition— would likely have to be a Republican. Electors are either Republicans or Democrats, depending on which candidate won the state, and there are as many electors in each state as there are members of Congress from that state.

Colorado, likely one of the first states that will face a potential lawsuit challenging its state law that binds electors to the state’s popular winner, has nine electors. Four of them say they would cast their votes for someone other than Clinton, even a Republican, if they can gather enough support around the country.

Related: Four out of 9 Colorado Electoral College members agree: Revolt is necessary

This group of electors, four from Colorado and two from Washington, have formed their own nonprofit fundraising organization to raise money for a public relations effort for their stop-Trump Electoral College plan.

Meanwhile, a loose-knit group of attorneys from around the country who have agreed to represent electors formed the Hamilton Defenders legal fund, a 501(c)4 nonprofit based out of Texas.

“The suits that I’m aware of are the ones that will be challenging the binding statutes in as many states as we can muster,” said a Colorado attorney working with the group who asked not to be named because the group is still in early planning stages. 

So far that includes a website and a GoFundMe page.

The group’s website includes a quote from Hamilton, who wrote in the Federalist Papers, “The office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

“We’ve got volunteer attorneys in, I think, now 20-plus states,” the Colorado lawyer for the Hamilton Defenders said.

As the Hamilton Electors try to reach out to their fellow national electors from around the country and convince them of their plan to thwart Trump, the Hamilton Defenders will do outreach to find any elector willing to stand in as a plaintiff in a state with elector-binding laws, as well as offer support to any elector who might need it. 

“We understand all of the risks involved in them coming forward. Some of them have been getting threats,” said another Hamilton Defender attorney from the Washington, DC area who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The political fallout some of them face may be significant.”

The DC lawyer said she has spoken with “quite a few” electors around the country and said she understands they have legitimate concerns about getting involved in such a movement. Any elector who wants to get in touch with a Hamilton Defender attorney can do so confidentially on the group’s website, she said.

In Colorado, the Secretary of State’s office is not aware of any lawsuit at this time, a spokesperson said.

 

Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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This story originally appeared in Chalkbeat Colorado. 

Colorado’s largest school district continues to grow, though not at the same breakneck pace that saw Denver Public Schools gain 20,000 students in the past decade. This year, DPS has 902 more students in preschool through 12th grade for a total of 92,331 kids, according to officials.

That’s about a 1 percent increase over last year, when the district had 91,429 students.

There are several reasons why student enrollment is slowing even as the city’s population is surging.

As outlined by the district’s planning office in a presentation to the school board, housing prices are rising in the gentrifying city, pushing lower-income families out of Denver. New home construction is booming, but much of it is aimed at millennials, most of whom don’t have school-aged children.

Furthermore, birth rates are down since the Great Recession. And unlike a decade ago, when 25 percent of Denver kids didn’t go to the public schools, the district has recaptured many students through school improvement efforts, leading to decreased growth potential.

So who are the students who attend DPS? The presentation highlights several enrollment trends. Here are five telling pieces of data, illustrated:

The percentage of Latino students has decreased since 2012, as has the percentage of low-income students. Meanwhile, the percentage of white students is on the rise.

The percentages of black students and students characterized as “other” have remained steady.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Enrollment in DPS’s various special education programs — known as “center-based programs” — is decreasing, with the exception of the autism program.

Enrollment in the autism program has increased 117 percent since 2009. That trend is being seen across the country as autism diagnoses have risen, the presentation notes.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

More special education students are being served in charter schools.

Students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools: in both types of schools, students with mild to moderate disabilities make up about 9 percent of the overall student population. District-run schools still have more “center-based programs” than charter schools but the gap is narrowing.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

White students attend high-performing schools at a higher rate than students of color.

Seventy-one percent of white students attend a “blue” or “green” school — the two highest ratings on the district’s color-coded scale known as the School Performance Framework and schools the district considers high-performing — while only 44 percent of Latino and 45 percent of black students do.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools

Fewer low-income students attend high-performing schools than their wealthier peers, but the gap has narrowed. However, the gap has grown for English language learners.

In 2009-10, 36 percent of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, attended high-performing schools. In 2015-16, 41 percent did. The percentage of non-low-income students attending high-performing schools stayed steady at 67 percent, meaning the gap between the two narrowed by 5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the gap between English language learners and non-English language learners attending high-performing schools grew from 10 percentage points to 12 percentage points.

Source: Denver Public Schools
Source: Denver Public Schools
Photo credit: Melanie Asmar, Chalkbeat

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on Dec. 1, 2016. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

 

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“Boulder County on Thursday morning installed posters assuring employees working in its government buildings, as well as visitors to those buildings, that they’re in a ‘Safe Zone,'” reports The Longmont Times-Call. “There are English and Spanish versions of the posters, which state that ‘This space respects all aspects of people including race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, political affiliation, age, religion, body shape, size and ability.’ Gabi Boerkircher, a spokeswoman for the Boulder County commissioners’ office, said the county plans to have at least one poster near a first-floor entrance to each of its buildings, and county departments and agencies can request additional signs if they want them.”

The Gazette in Colorado Springs reports state roads are short on money. “The Colorado Department of Transportation has identified $9 billion in unfunded priorities, including widening I-25 between Monument and Castle Rock, measured against a $1.41 billion budget next year. That budget already is over-burdened with maintenance requests, the highway department told legislative budget writers Thursday.”

Colorado Obamacare signups are running about 25 percent higher than last year, The Denver Post reports. “Through November, 37,948 people — a nearly 25 percent increase — had signed up for medical and dental insurance plans on Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s exchange. In November 2015, 30,777 people signed up.”

Steamboat Today breaks the news of pilots receiving thousands of dollars worth of unauthorized discounts at a local airport. The paper’s review of short-term airport hangar rentals at the city’s taxpayer-funded airport dating back to 2011 “found several irregularities, including a few cases where the airport staff charged some pilots significantly less for their stays at Bob Adams Field than other pilots of the same type of aircraft who rented the same hangar at the same time of year.” … “Steamboat Today requested the airport rental records after emails the paper obtained in a seperate open records request this summer showed that inconsistencies in the rental records had created friction between former airport manager Adam Kittinger and Public Works Director Chuck Anderson.”

The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reports on a mystery distiller in town, Old Elk. “In a nondescript warehouse in northeast Fort Collins, a handful of people work in obscurity, without a name or logo to betray the activity inside 1713 Lincoln Ave.”

“Weld County officials finalized new oil and gas rules this week, in part, to push back against state regulators, but one of the state agency’s veterans says the rules aren’t too shabby,” reports The Greeley Tribune. “Thom Kerr spent 23 years at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission overseeing the industry as it began to boom in Weld. “I’d say that it seems like they’ve reached a middle ground that is good for the residents and good for the industry,” he said.”

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reports on a psychiatric hospital raising money for a new facility. “At any given time, the 32 beds at West Springs Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction, are filled. An additional 10 to 22 people are on wait lists each day. Those people who would be better served at a psychiatric hospital may be housed in jails, medical hospitals or taken to a Denver-area psychiatric hospital, said Sharon Raggio, president and chief executive officer of Mind Springs Health, the private, not-for-profit parent company of West Springs Hospital.”

“Trump back on winning track,” reads the above-the-fold headline from a wire story about a Trump rally in Ohio in today’s Pueblo Chieftain.

The Loveland Reporter-Herald reports how Larimer County might lift mandatory court appearances for animal violations. “First, if the changes are approved, those who receive tickets for violations such as barking dogs, animals at large or even rabies violations would be able to choose whether to pay the fine in advance or whether to appear in court. On more serious violations, or those involving some possible restitution, animal control officers could still require a mandatory court appearance.”

“Just before midnight Thursday, the Boulder Planning Board rejected a proposed mixed-use development with commercial space and 50 middle-income housing units near the corner of Broadway and Iris Avenue,” reports The Boulder Daily Camera. “The unanimous decision was consistent with a recommendation made by city planners who had taken the rare step ahead of the hearing to recommend outright denial of the proposal, largely on the grounds that it was inconsistent with several Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan policies.”

The Durango Herald reports on potential local fixes for a housing shortage. As part of it, “city staff members are also considering changing regulations that govern parking, height and density to help encourage housing, Planner Mark Williams told the crowd. The city has been working with an advisory committee to help guide these proposals.”

 

 

Forced pooling is not mandatory swim practice

Colorado law compels communities that own their mineral rights to lease them against their will

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A slightly different version of this story first appeared in the Boulder Weekly

When James Sines shopped for homes in 2007, he thought he knew how to pick a neighborhood that would never be drilled for oil or gas. His nephew, a geologist, told Sines to ask the real estate agent showing a house in Broomfield’s Anthem development whether the deed included subsurface mineral rights. The real estate agent’s answer was vague. Sines pressed the agent, and learned that the mineral rights beneath the otherwise spacious floor plan would not belong to him.

Sines crossed the highway to a development called Wildgrass where orderly rows of executive homes were under construction. “The first question I asked was, `Do I own the mineral rights?’” recalled Sines. The answer was yes, and he bought the house.

Nearly a decade later, Sines, a manufacturing consultant, learned that in Colorado, owning your mineral rights doesn’t necessarily protect you from drilling. An arcane provision in Colorado law allows energy companies to drill under residential communities even when homeowners own their mineral rights but don’t want to lease them.

It’s called “forced pooling.”

Forced pooling, Sines and his 509 Wildgrass neighbors have learned, gives oil and gas companies the right to drill under their property, as long as the company makes a “reasonable” offer to mineral rights owners and at least one homeowner signs a lease. Even if the rest of the community opposes the development and declines to lease their rights, an energy company can apply to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for a forced pooling order, and the COGCC will almost certainly approve it.

Forced pooling came to Wildgrass in the form of Extraction Oil & Gas, a company specializing in developing wells near Colorado housing developments – and generating conflict in its wake.

Wildgrass residents first heard about Extraction in a letter from High West Resources, Ltd. dated June 24, 2016. The land resource company, which represented Extraction Oil & Gas, LLC, offered to lease each homeowner’s mineral rights in exchange for a $500 signing bonus and a 15 percent royalty on an undisclosed amount of potential oil and gas revenue. The letter ended with this pressure-infused sentence, in bold. “This offer to lease is valid for fifteen (15) days from the date of this letter.”

Some Wildgrass residents assumed the letter was a Front Range version of a Nigerian get-rich scheme and tossed it. Others knew they owned mineral rights under their homes and had no intention of leasing them to High West, Extraction or anybody else. Some say they never received the notice at all. A handful signed the lease. Still others were worried, even panicked, especially when they found out that Extraction was threatening Wildgrass residents with forced pooling if they didn’t sign.

For Sines, it was a sign he’d better sell. “It can’t be good for property values,” he said, standing near the “For Sale” sign planted near his curb on an early fall day. “There can’t be a return from this leasing that’s more than the impacts on the community’s property values.” He said he has too much sunk into the house to watch his equity disappear, and doesn’t believe that any politician, state regulator or lawyer is going to ride in on a white horse to help. “We’re definitely getting bent over,” said Sines. “I’m outta here.”

For many others in Wildgrass, however, it was time to fight back.

The Lowell Pad, where Extraction Oil & Gas plans a 42-well site, between Wildgrass and Anthem developments.

The Lowell Pad, where Extraction Oil & Gas plans a 42-well site, between Wildgrass and Anthem developments.

1889, meet 2016

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court established the “rule of capture” in 1889 during the heady early days of the oil explosion, differentiating an underground mineral right from a surface landowner’s right. The idea, put simply, was “drillers keepers”— whoever stuck a straw into the ground and sucked oil to the surface could keep it, even if the oil flowed from under a neighbor’s property.

That didn’t work so well. (Remember the Daniel Day-Lewis line, “I drink your milkshake,” from There Will Be Blood?) The law evolved to address the increasing number of conflicts that emerged. One result  was to further codify this notion of “split estates,” where one person could own surface property, but another person (or corporation) could own the mineral rights below.

As oil companies launched their 20th century catapult to become among the most profitable businesses in history, they hired sophisticated lawyers and lobbyists to write legislation that favored their industry. They ensured those laws would pass by using brute political force and slick public relations campaigns. Ensuing laws gave mineral owners preferential rights to force surface owners to accommodate their rigs, often with disastrous consequences to the surface owners’ domestic tranquility, not to mention their water quality and health.

(The oil and gas industry recently spent millions of dollars in Colorado to prevent two initiatives from getting on this year’s ballot that would have placed some limits on oil and gas development, and spent millions more to pass November’s “Raise the Bar” initiative that will make future citizen-led ballot issues even tougher to pass.)

Later, the concept of “compulsory pooling” surfaced, giving oil and gas companies the right to access underground hydrocarbons even when they didn’t own them or acquire the rights to lease them. The idea, said CU Law School Thomson Visiting Law Professor Bruce Kramer, was to ensure that a homeowner who didn’t want oil and gas rigs on their property “cannot deprive their neighbor the right to develop them.”

Ironically, when two cities in Kansas passed the first “compulsory pooling” laws in 1927, according to Kramer’s analysis, they aimed to limit the number of urban drilling rigs. At the time, Kramer said, “thousands and thousands of wells were being drilled,” since a mineral owner risked having a neighbor drink the mineral owner’s milkshake if they didn’t sink a well themselves. Forced pooling, Kramer said, allowed multiple mineral owners to share the financial benefits of drilling without creating an inefficient mess — or being held hostage by holdouts.

Fast forward to the drilling boom of the last decade, when a combination of new, horizontal drilling technology and more sophisticated hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques opened up vast frontiers of previously unrecoverable deposits of oil and gas. Oil and gas companies received exemptions from complying with provisions of federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, as famously happened in 2005 when then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s controversial “Energy Task Force” allowed energy companies to withhold information about the toxic chemicals they used for hydraulic fracturing.  

States like Colorado also legislated that oil and gas companies would receive preferential treatment on multiple fronts. The laws allowed energy companies to create larger and larger milkshake pools and to snake their straws for miles to access almost any fuels they wanted, including near schools, water sources – and under residential communities like Wildgrass.

Over the past decade, residents, cities and counties facing oil and gas development in their backyards have objected. In case after case around the state, they have been systematically overridden: by state law, COGCC regulations and the courts – all interpreting laws that the industry essentially wrote. In May 2016, the state Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the industry by invalidating voter-approved restrictions on new oil and gas developments in Ft. Collins and Longmont, with repercussions for Lafayette, Boulder County – and Broomfield.

“The government is not supposed to pick favorites,” said attorney Matthew Sura, who represents Wildgrass and other communities facing forced pooling and neighborhood drilling. “But the oil and gas industry is clearly their favorite here in Colorado.”

With the support of the COGCC’s interpretation of its statutes, operators in the state are increasingly using forced pooling as a tool to work in more densely populated areas. Extraction Oil & Gas has 20 pooling applications on the COGCC’s December docket, many of them in and around the city of Greeley. A conservative estimate indicates there are at least 15,000 potentially affected mineral owners in those 20 applications alone, including family estates and corporate owners. Statewide, according to COGCC Director Matthew Lepore, the Commission issued about 540 orders per year between 2012 and 2015. About 40 percent of those were pooling orders, where multiple mineral owners were consolidated into one company’s drilling proposal, with and without the owner’s consent. The COGCC does not track how many owners voluntarily signed leases, and how many were “force-pooled.”

In an email response to questions, Lepore wrote that the Commission has not yet encountered a situation where “all or nearly all” of a large number of mineral owners in a spacing unit “are united in opposition to leasing their minerals.” He said that if there is significant resistance, companies may eventually decide it’s too expensive and cumbersome to deal with so many “non-consenting interest owners.” At present, however, “the Colorado the Oil and Gas Conservation Act does not contain a minimum leased or participating acreage percentage requirement for a pooling order to be entered (thus, in theory, a 1% mineral owner could pool the other 99% owners),” Lepore wrote.  

Mike Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law organization, said that forced pooling laws were written long before “unconventional” gas plays allowed operators to access minerals from miles away. “The mechanism they’re using has really outlived its usefulness,” he said.

Law professor Kramer agrees that most legislation around the country has not been updated to consider new technologies and human settlement patterns. “Most pooling clauses contained in oil and gas leases were drafted with vertical well drilling in mind,” Kramer wrote. In a phone interview, Kramer said that some states have altered their laws to give more weight to the property rights of surface owners. Compulsory pooling laws are still prevalent around the country, he said, but are not inviolate. “If a legislature wants to redraw the balance given to people who don’t want to develop their rights,” Kramer said, “the legislature is free to do so.”

COGCC’s Lepore said that under current law, if the COGCC ascertains that the spacing is appropriate and the operator meets a couple stipulations, it normally grants such requests. Even homeowners who own their mineral rights have very few legal options to fight a company that wants to drill. “Essentially, an unleased mineral owner can object on grounds that the applicant failed to offer the mineral owner reasonable lease terms,” Lepore wrote, or if the lease didn’t allow homeowners to receive their fair share of the proceeds. In other words, simply not wanting it to happen in your backyard – even if you own the mineral rights –  is not a valid legal reason to object.

“We didn’t even think it was possible to frack a neighborhood.”

Extraction spokesman Brian Cain recently sent a statement to the news media regarding his company’s  Broomfield plans, stating that it chose locations “to be as far as possible from residential housing.” It promised to provide “professionally design [sic] landscaping, at each site before commencing activities to address visual impacts of these operations. The landscaping will involve rolling berms covered with natural grasses and trees inspired by Colorado’s flowing landscapes and vistas.” According to Cain’s statement, the company also planned “Best Management Practices and latest development technology” to “deliver the safest, cleanest, and best project to the community.” Cain did not respond to several emailed requests for further comment for this article, and his voice mailbox was full.

For many people living in residential enclaves like Wildgrass, applying the forced pooling provision in 2016 to a densely inhabited residential development where the vast majority of residents don’t want oil and gas drillers is unfathomable. “We didn’t even think it was possible to frack a neighborhood,” said Wildgrass resident Bernie McKibben, expressing a sentiment shared by a rapidly growing number of urban and suburban residents around the state.

The forced pooling news hit Wildgrass residents like a cannonball. “At first I really thought the High West letter was a joke,” said Stephen Uhlhorn, an engineer who bought a house in Wildgrass when he moved from Florida three years ago with his wife, a physician, and their two children. Like many of his neighbors, when Uhlhorn started looking into Extraction’s forced pooling plans, he went from disbelief to anger and defiance. “This is suburbia!” he said. “You don’t expect oil rigs in suburbia.”

Uhlhorn is bewildered by the state’s willingness to allow industrial facilities in neighborhoods where it would be tough to get approval to build a new Walmart. “What’s next?” he wondered. “Are they going to drill under the 16th Street Mall? Apparently, there’s nobody that’s going to stop them.”

As Coloradans continue to debate local control over oil and gas development, how far well pads should be set back from schools and water sources, and what limits, if any, should be placed on the fossil fuel extraction industry in residential neighborhoods, the Wildgrass case study stands as a sentinel and a warning: if state-sanctioned drilling can happen there, it can happen in any neighborhood in the state that sits atop viable quantities of hydrocarbons.

Bernie and Linda McKibben, residents of Wildgrass.  They are leading the anti-forced pooling efforts.

Bernie and Linda McKibben, residents of Wildgrass. They are leading the anti-forced pooling efforts.

Welcome to Broomfield: “A great place to live, work, and play!”

To understand Wildgrass residents’ concerns about turning their tranquil suburban community into an industrial zone, one only has to drive north along county roads on the east side of I-25 out of Denver. Interspersed among large, new housing developments built by the biggest developers in the country such as Lennar and KB Homes are clusters of mini-refineries barely hidden by hay-bale walls and camouflaged by tan barriers the thickness of corduroy. There, oil and gas companies have built multiple wellheads and dehydrators, separators, compressors, pipelines and storage tanks within a stone’s throw of suburban backyard barbeques, swing sets and elementary schools. All these industrial sites are vulnerable to leaks, spills and explosions, and emit an array of pollutants, including benzene, ethylene and methane.

State regulators have only the barest grasp of the kind and amount of emissions that escape these facilities. The COGCC does not regulate air emissions, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety (CDPHE) only inpects well sites about once every five years. (SEE RELATED STORY: TEXAS TEA)  Scientists have documented undetected leaks and inadequate methods of determining the scope of toxic releases. Researchers have documented multiple health impacts on people who live in close proximity to oil and gas operations around the country.

Nonetheless, Colorado state health officials still insist there is insufficient evidence to link exposures from neighborhood drilling to public health impacts in the state. Dr. Larry Wolk, the executive director and chief medical officer of the CDPHE (who is also a COGCC commissioner), recently told The Colorado Independent, “We don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time.”

Broomfield (population 65,065) is almost equidistant from where the Broncos play in Denver (15 miles) and the Colorado Buffaloes play in Boulder (10 miles). It has easy access to the Boulder-Denver turnpike, is about a 40-minute drive to DIA, and is home to consultants, professionals and business people who moved to this Front Range playground so they can ski on the weekends, send their kids to good schools and enjoy open spaces and views of the Continental Divide from their bedroom windows.

A Google-Earth-eye view of the Wildgrass development shows it as part of the swelling Denver metropolitan organism, with contiguous communities like Broomfield, Westminster, and Northglenn filling the remaining open spaces with tract homes and national chain strip malls. Broomfield itself has grown by almost 60 percent since the 2000 Census – three times the statewide average.

Entering Wildgrass a visitor drives past laser-carved sandstone that marks the neighborhood as distinct from the nearby laser-carved enclave, Silverleaf. Two-bedroom townhouses in the housing tract sell from the low $400s. Five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot homes fetch $1 million. You pass the Holy Family High School, owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Denver (more on that later), which many Wildgrass children attend. On an early fall afternoon, Latino gardeners with leaf blowers patrol the yards, delivery vans unload new refrigerators and residents walk Labradors on leashes. It’s an unlikely spot for yet another new battlefront in the state’s fracking wars.

After Extraction’s sign-in-15-days-or-else letter circulated, a few upset residents wanted to know if they were alone in their outrage. They decided to take Wildgrass’s temperature, which is harder than you might think in a typical American exurban enclave, where people drive their Lexuses and Audis (and Priuses and Leafs) into garages adjacent to their homes, and rarely socialize as a community.

One resident, Bill Young, is an IT consultant who created an informational website about the drilling proposal, then conducted an online poll. About 300 of the 510 homeowners responded, he said, with 75 percent opposed to any oil and gas development and ready to fight. Among the remaining 25 percent, most said they felt like the deck was so stacked against them that resistance would be futile ­– and expensive.

A handful of residents happily signed on to Extraction’s plans.

Ryan Nygard, who moved here from Canada two years ago and who’s been working in the oil and gas industry for 12 years, said that many of his neighbors’ concerns about health and safety are overblown. “I have no problem with it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t dispute that a majority of his neighbors oppose Extraction’s plans. Nygard said that there’s a bit of a hypocrisy factor at play here as well, since most Wildgrass residents take hot showers and heat their homes using natural gas and drive their cars to the mountains to ski. Nygard also believes that there is more support for his position than has been expressed publicly – what he called the “Trump factor.” Nygard said he signed the proffered lease with Extraction – after he made sure it wasn’t a hoax.

A few Wildgrass residents hoped they’d receive six-figure annual payouts for agreeing to let their land be drilled. Yet those expectations are far out of line with Young’s estimates, based on information provided by Extraction, which put royalties for an average Wildgrass homeowner with a quarter-acre lot at about $3,000 over the first four years and maybe $100 a year after that. That’s hardly Beverly Hillbillies money.

Among those who became part of the de facto organizing committee against Extraction’s proposed development are Linda and Bernie McKibben. The couple moved to Wildgrass from Phoenix about 10 years ago with their two children. Bernie is an electrical engineer who’s worked in the mobile phone sector, and Linda is a 30-year veteran nurse who’s worked in many different healthcare settings, from cardiac care to home health. Neither self-identifies as environmental activists, and they are dumbfounded by the energy industry’s television ads that paint outraged suburbanites as “fracktivists.”

Linda notes that Wildgrass’s own covenants, codes and restrictions include a host of limitations of what residents can do with their property, from where they can park to what color they can paint their mailboxes. “There are all kinds of restrictions on what you can do here,” she said, “apparently unless oil and gas companies want to do it.”

The community sought legal advice. They couldn’t find a lawyer to take the case at first, either because the lawyers they consulted worked with oil and gas companies, or because even sympathetic lawyers said the law allowed forced pooling of non-consenting mineral owners, no matter how crazy it sounded to some Wildgrass residents.

They hired attorney Matthew Sura to give them a Forced Pooling 101 tutorial. He wasn’t optimistic, either. According to the documents Extraction had filed, the company wanted to drill up to 42 wells on the Lowell Pad that was north of Wildgrass but not technically on neighborhood property. The area to be horizontally drilled will also head towards the Anthem development to the north (where homebuyer James Sines had declined to buy), as well as land owned by the City of Broomfield and the Archdiocese of Denver to the south.

Extraction had gained the surface rights to drill from four spots along the Northwest Parkway corridor; the closest is a half a mile from Wildgrass but other locations will be less than 600 feet from the nearest Anthem house, across the highway. In its application to the COGCC for the Wildgrass development, Extraction listed ten pages of “unleased mineral owners.” Extraction had already received provisional support from elected officials in Broomfield, which is both a city and a county, even though its citizens had narrowly voted to institute a five-year fracking ban in 2014 that was annulled by the state Supreme Court in May.  

The upshot, attorney Sura told Wildgrass residents, was that “there was no statutory way to fight this,” and suggested using lease negotiations to limit the impacts on the community.

Wildgrass residents said they needed some time to digest all of this and organize. They successfully lobbied the Broomfield City Council to support their request to postpone a “spacing hearing,” a process that helps determine how many wells can be drilled in a specific parcel of land, which was originally scheduled for Aug. 29. The COGCC agreed, and the hearing was rescheduled for Dec. 12. On Monday Nov. 28, the hearing was rescheduled again, for Jan. 30, 2017.

If the spacing is approved, as expected, a forced pooling application will likely follow.

In a phone interview, Broomfield Mayor Randy Ahrens, who describes himself as “an oil and gas guy” from his years as an engineer in the industry, said he is “appalled” by Extraction’s plans on several counts. First, Broomfield purchased the mineral rights near its reservoir from Noble Energy years ago because “we didn’t want to worry about oil wells” close to a water source. “We didn’t buy them so somebody else could force pool them,” Ahrens said. Second, in Extraction’s initial negotiations with the city, the company offered to consolidate several dozen well pads down to four, with a total of 40-50 wells. Now it appears that Extraction is planning up to 140 wells. “I’m appalled at the size of the operation,” said Ahrens, which would create a “major industrial site” that doesn’t fit with the nearby residential neighborhoods, including Wildgrass and Anthem. Ahrens said he doesn’t hold out hope that the COGCC will intervene, since “they’re going to rubber stamp anything.” Broomfield is exploring its options, Ahrens said.  

Current Extraction Oil well in the open space west of Wildgrass.  Extraction says they will close this well.

Current Extraction Oil well in the open space west of Wildgrass. Extraction says they will close this well.

Making a PowerPoint

When Extraction executives heard that Wildgrass residents were going to speak with attorney Sura in July,  they tried to invite themselves to the meeting. Instead, residents agreed to arrange a separate meeting with Extraction representatives.

By the time Extraction presented to the Wildgrass residents at the Broomfield Rec Center on July 25, many residents were still seething over the strong-arm tactics of the initial High West letter. Others were frustrated that they had to deal with this at all and wished Extraction would just go away.

About 80 residents milled about before the meeting, sampling pastries and coffee provided by Extraction. Casually dressed (pressed khakis and white shirts, no ties) men from Extraction stood around posters with maps of Wildgrass and the proposed drilling sites, answering questions.

The 7 p.m. start time came and went, and the crowd grew restless as the main presenter, Boyd McMaster, fiddled with a recalcitrant PowerPoint presentation. About 45 minutes into the scheduled two-hour presentation, the presentation sprung to the screen. This was not a good sign to many of the attendees, who texted incredulous remarks to each other. “This is the company we’re supposed to trust with drilling under our bedrooms?” wondered IT consultant Young.

McMaster affably laid out Extraction’s plans to the skeptical audience, promising a question-and-answer session at the end. He said that many of Extraction’s employees lived in the area, and he understood there were concerns. “We’re not in the middle of the prairie here,” he said. “We’re in the middle of your community.” McMaster said that he and his team would always be available to answer questions, and shared contact information with the crowd.

He described how they would use horizontal drilling methods to minimize the number of well pads. They would cap several older wells scattered around the county. They would build tall sound walls during construction and would follow the letter of the law. “Colorado has the strictest regulations of this industry than any place in the world,” he said, parroting the industry’s stay-on-message message.

If the industry has been fracking this way for 60 years, then the Dodgers are still playing in Brooklyn.

Then he took on the “F-word,” fracking, by calling it “hydraulic stimulation,” and said that the industry has being doing it for 60 years. This implies that nothing is different between the way companies drilled when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the recent technology revolution that allows companies to unlock mile-deep “tight-sands” reservoirs of hydrocarbons using millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and biocides. If the industry has been fracking this way for 60 years, then the Dodgers are still playing in Brooklyn.

New technology has driven an unprecedented oil and gas boom (and bust) over the past decade – in Colorado and around the world. The boom slowed after a precipitous drop in oil prices (oil plummeted from more than $100 a barrel in April 2015 to less than $30 a barrel early this year before rebounding to around $50 recently), but has not halted companies like Extraction from preparing for a further price rebound­. On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Extraction Oil & Gas held an initial public offering of 33.3 million shares of its stock on Wall Street. The estimated value of the company exceeded $3 billion.

In the taxonomy of oil and gas companies, mid-sized operators like Extraction fill a niche that investors might characterize as bold, but others call inherently antagonistic. “They take toxic assets that other people have walked away from and develop them,” said an independent operator who says Extraction is being overly aggressive in residential communities. The operator declined to be named because he works with one of Extraction’s shareholders.

When it became clear that Extraction’s presentation was going to continue until the attendees’ babysitters would expect to be relieved, one resident asked about the promised question-and-answer portion of the show. McMaster started riffing through FAQ questions he had written down before the meeting. When a resident insisted that Extraction take questions from the live audience, McMaster did.

One resident wondered where Extraction would get the water to do the fracking and where the produced water would go, referring to the byproduct of fracking that includes millions of gallons of hydrocarbon- and chemical-laced water that needs disposal. Would Extraction pipe it or truck it to injection wells? Where were those? Weren’t injection wells the cause of earthquakes, like what was happening in Oklahoma?

The vague answers McMasters gave were disconcerting. The produced water, he said, would be taken to an injection well in Weld County, at least 12 miles away. That didn’t help much, said Sally Kaplan, a Wildgrass owner who attended the meeting. “They didn’t tell us where they were going to get the water from, or where the wastewater was going to be stored.” Just because it wasn’t going to be dumped in their backyard, Kaplan said, “doesn’t mean we don’t care about it.”

Others wanted to know about the project’s timing. Although it only takes a few weeks to drill each well, McMaster told them, there would be quite a number of wells drilled from the pads, and construction would probably take about two years.

That only made some residents even more nervous about their home prices and peace of mind. On a table along with Extraction’s brochures was a letter addressed to the Broomfield City Council and signed by six “concerned realtors.” The letter stated that the proposed oil and gas operations “will have a profound impact on the surrounding property values and the quality of life for Broomfield residents.”

The Extraction meeting didn’t allay many Wildgrass residents’ concerns about safety, nuisance, stress, health complaints, air quality issues, impacts to water quality and availability and effects on their children and property values. “We were supposed to say, ‘We’re the one percent, we love hydraulic stimulation and we love America,’” said one homeowner, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of their job. “That’s not gonna happen.”

It didn’t take long after the July meeting for residents to take McMaster up on his offer to answer their questions. At least five residents said they never received replies.

“Nothing but radio silence,” Uhlhorn said.

View from the Lowell Pad, looking NE across Anthem, where Extraction Oil & Gas plans a 42-well site, between Wildgrass and Anthem developments. The drill pad would reach under Anthem and it's open space.

View from the Lowell Pad, looking NE across Anthem, where Extraction Oil & Gas plans a 42-well site, between Wildgrass and Anthem developments. The drill pad would reach under Anthem and it’s open space.

Moving to “Doomfield”

At Wildgrass, resistance to forced pooling doesn’t seem to follow partisan lines. Unlike Boulder County, the enduringly liberal Democratic enclave to the west, Broomfield has more unaffiliated voters (16,250) than registered Democrats (13,020) or Republicans (12,550). Issues like local control, property rights and government bullying resonate pretty strongly among Republicans, and issues like environmental protection and climate change are trademark Democratic issues.

Wildgrass residents fanned out to gather information, employing an array of tripartisan expertise from lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, healthcare professionals, engineers and others among them. Many are reluctant conscripts, like IT security consultant Young, who has lived in Wildgrass since 2010. “It took it landing in my backyard for me to get involved,” he said.

However grudgingly, Young joined the fray and started researching. He noted that in the Extraction presentation, “there was not a single slide about surface spills.” So he conducted his own search and discovered seven reported surface leaks in Broomfield in the past five years from other operators. Perhaps even more disturbing for Young, the city of Broomfield’s Public Health and Environment Division had documented that last year, 22 out of the 38 active oil and gas sites in Broomfield had leaked. Neither the COGCC nor the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had detected the leaks.

Extraction, Young discovered from COGCC documents, had 17 documented spills and releases around the state (this did not include two recent spills in November), several of them due to “human error.” He also learned from  the COGCC website that there had been 66 complaints filed against Extraction for everything from noise and odor to increased traffic from trucks carrying equipment to and from drill sites.

Other residents started digging into water issues. Hydraulic fracturing requires large amounts of water, and also “produces” water that comes up co-mingled with the mile-deep oil and gas. One new well pad would be located between an existing reservoir and a planned reservoir, meant for recreation as well as for city drinking water storage.

Wildgrass residents reached out to the Archdiocese of Denver, which owns land and mineral rights adjacent to Wildgrass under Holy Family High School. Since Pope Francis expressed concern about climate change and environmental stewardship in his Encyclical in May 2015, Wildgrass residents thought there might be some opening to find an ally in the Church.

Initial outreach to the Archdiocese was met with a cool response, so Wildgrass residents printed up a flier with the headline in red, bold caps: FRACKING UNDER HOLY FAMILY SCHOOL and distributed it to parents.

Wildgrass resident Jean Lim, a professor at the Jesuit-run Regis University, says that the impacts on her family worry her, but that there are also larger issues to consider. “The Pope’s Encyclical was a strong statement of environmental concerns on a global scale,” Lim said. “It should have the serious attention of all Catholics.” Lim said she has contacted the Archdiocese, and expressed an interest in arranging a meeting to discuss ways to work together to “secure health and safety protections for its high school students and the Catholic residents of Wildgrass.” Lim has not received a reply.

A Denver Archdiocese spokeswoman, Karna Swanson, declined to comment on how or whether the Holy Father’s Laudato Si’ would be taken into consideration as part of the Archdiocese’s decision about whether to accept or oppose Extraction’s leasing offer. “We were approached by Extraction Oil & Gas to lease our mineral rights,” Swanson confirmed. “We at this point are not doing anything. We haven’t responded.”

If our country’s energy independence and state economy relies on drilling in neighborhoods like Wildgrass, “We are way on the wrong track.”

Linda McKibben, a registered nurse, started investigating health impacts and found an alphabet soup of federal and state agencies and universities that have published data about the negative health impacts of oil and gas development, including NIH, CDC, EPA, OSHA, NIOSH, CDPHE, CU, CSU, Cornell, Duke and many others. “There is a lot of literature suggesting there are legitimate health concerns for workers and communities near these developments,” she concluded. “It defies understanding,” she said, how state regulators could agree to let residents act as guinea pigs while epidemiological evidence accumulates around the country.

Bernie McKibben started looking further into the COGCC’s role in overseeing oil and gas operations in the state. At first, he had believed Gov. John Hickenlooper’s assurances about the state’s ever-tightening regulations and inspections. He had taken heart from the COGCC’s legal mandate to, “foster the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of the natural resources of oil and gas in the State of Colorado in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

But then Bernie started understanding just how little the industry was regulated, how rarely inspectors made visits, and how haphazardly companies monitored their own sites. He got a hold of the “Field Inspection Unit Well Inspection Prioritization” document from the COGCC, which he said floored him on multiple fronts. The document prioritizes a “risk-based strategy for inspecting oil and gas locations,” categorizing operations by risk factor and giving each a rating according to its level of importance. He discovered that “Population Density & Urbanization” only accounted for 10 percent of the weighted assessment. He found the fine print was even more appalling: The highest density the COGCC considered was in places where there were 25 people per square mile or more. This means that a semi-rural area like Clear Creek County is treated the same as Broomfield County, the second-most densely populated county in the state, with more than 1,700 people per square mile.

“Looks to me like people in subdivisions like Wildgrass aren’t very high on their priority list,” he said.

Another front on the Wildgrass fracking wars opened up with lawyers who lived in the neighborhood and who started scrutinizing the fine print regarding liability. They found that residents who signed the leases could be held responsible for Extraction’s legal costs and other financial consequences if there was an accident.  “We would be accountable for their errors?” asked Bernie, incredulously.

Residents sought allies in the other Broomfield neighborhoods. The nearby Anthem subdivision had generated its share of concerned citizens, since Extraction was heading their way as well. Some Anthem residents owned their minerals, but many did not.

At a Broomfield City Council meeting on Nov. 15, about 40 Anthem residents showed up to urge the mayor and council to protect them. The scale of Extraction’s plans, which had ballooned to 140 wells, was unprecedented, former oil and gas worker Lara Hill-Pavlik told the commissioners. “I am unaware of a single project of this magnitude which has been implemented in such close proximity to schools and residents,” she said. “And I lived in Houston.”

“I told my husband, ‘We’ve moved to Doomfield.’”

After the meeting, Anthem resident Michael Kohut said, “We’d like to set a different precedent: saying no to drilling in residential neighborhoods.”

Patricia Romero-Trustle, who told council members that she recently moved from Los Angeles for a better quality of life, stood in the municipal building lobby after the meeting completely disillusioned. “I told my husband, ‘We’ve moved to Doomfield,’” she said.

Broomfield City Councilman Kevin Kreeger heard the Anthem residents’ presentation, and is outraged at the whole concept of forced pooling – as well as the way Extraction has played its pooling card. “Forced pooling is big government and big business at their absolute worst,” Kreeger said, since it grants the state government the right to take one person’s property and give it to a company, even when “there is no social benefit of any kind.” He said that “Extraction has not operated with integrity or respect for our community,” and is disturbed that the company keeps increasing the number of wells it intends to drill. Originally, the plan was to drill 24 new wells after plugging and abandoning 26 old ones, Kreeger said. Now, Extraction has applied to drill almost six times that many, all of them near homes and schools. “That many wells means 24-hour drilling for years,” he said.

Wildgrass residents gathered in one of their community playgrounds to  show their resistance to the planned forced pooling action by Extraction Oil & Gas.

Wildgrass residents gathered in one of their community playgrounds to show their resistance to the planned forced pooling action by Extraction Oil & Gas.

NIMBY and beyond

Wildgrass organizers heard a long list of reasons why residents and neighbors opposed Extraction’s plans. They ranged from NIMBYism to health impacts to an awakening that there’s a much bigger issue at play here, including the climate impacts of continuing to go full-speed ahead with fossil fuel development — even when there’s a gas glut and overwhelming evidence that human-caused climate change is already affecting Colorado in multiple ways. If our country’s energy independence and state economy rely on drilling in neighborhoods like Wildgrass, the engineer Uhlhorn said, “We are way on the wrong track.”

Not all Wildgrass residents are convinced they can beat Extraction or want to fight the COGCC. Even those who do not support Extraction’s efforts worry that community members are spending time and treasure on a losing battle. Peter Pacek, a healthcare executive and nine-year resident of Wildgrass, said he’s concerned that there is “very little that an average citizen can do to hold them back because of the way the laws are written.” Still, Pacek said, he didn’t sign a lease, either.

Residents will soon hear what the COGCC has to say about the next step, when the Extraction faces a usually pro forma “spacing hearing” now scheduled for Jan. 30, 2017. For the time being, the discerning homebuyer James Sines said this week, he’s pulled his house from the market, waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Despite the COGCC’s long record of accommodating the industry, Wildgrass residents now know they are not alone: Their Anthem neighbors, as well as people in Greeley, Boulder, Ft. Collins, El Paso County, Battlement Mesa, Pueblo, Thornton, Longmont, Lafayette, Westminster and dozens of other communities around the state are all struggling to keep this rising residential hydrocarbon tide from swamping their neighborhoods. “We know that if we’re going to have any hope, we have to act as a group,” said Bernie McKibben.

The group is likely to grow. When several Wildgrass residents met with COGCC Director Lepore recently, they asked him where they could move in Colorado to avoid having to fight oil and gas development.

His reply: “Summit County” — a place so mountainous, it would be nearly impossible to drill.

 

Cover image: Homes in Wildgrass as seen from open space to the west. 

All photos by Ted Wood/The Story Group

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“The Colorado Public Utilities Commission cut more than $6 million out of Black Hills Energy’s request for an extra $8.5 million a year in revenue Wednesday,” The Pueblo Chieftain reports. “Even so, Commissioner Frances Koncilja wanted more cuts and complained the state commission has been too agreeable in past rate requests from the electric utility. Black Hills is seeking a 5 percent hike in monthly electric bills to help pay for a $70 million “peak power” turbine at its Pueblo power station.”

The Boulder Daily Camera reports how the county is phasing out growing GMO crops on county-owned farmland. “Tenant farmers who have been growing genetically engineered corn on the lands they lease from the county can continue to plant it next year but will have to end using county-owned fields for GMO corn crops by the end of 2019. The staff-produced transition plan was approved by Commissioners Elise Jones and Deb Gardner but opposed by Commissioner Cindy Domenico. Genetically engineered sugar beets will continue to be allowed for the next five years but will have to be phased out completely by the end of 2021.”

“With fundraising and revenue barely keeping pace with costs, the Bright Futures scholarship program will need an infusion of cash in coming years, Weld County officials admitted publicly for the first time this week,” reports The Greeley Tribune. “The Bright Futures program promises up to $3,000 per year for higher education to any Weld County high school graduate, GED recipient or honorably discharged military veteran.”

The Longmont Times-Call reports on a group considering affordable housing options in Boulder. “The Boulder County Housing Authority is inviting Longmont residents and the owners and employees of downtown Longmont businesses and properties to a Dec. 8 community outreach presentation about the agency’s proposal to develop an affordable-housing project there. The development being considered for a 0.8-acre site on the east side of the 500 block of Coffman Street would be a mixed-use building with 50 to 80 affordable-housing units, a parking garage and about 10,000 square feet of commercial office space.”

“Last year, the Thompson School District received less than $200,000 in marijuana tax money from the state to pay for 28 percent of the new roof installed at Berthoud High School,” reports The Loveland Reporter-Herald. “That grant was awarded from a pool of $40 million in total marijuana money that the state receives to split among all school districts through a competitive application process, according to information given to the Thompson school board during a budget discussion at Wednesday’s meeting. Each grant, once approved, also requires a large match from districts.”

Colorado State University is gearing up to expand its bike-sharing program, according to The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. “The expansion would fill a ‘black hole’ in the bike-share program’s coverage area and potentially lead to stations going in along the West Elizabeth Street corridor and at apartment complexes that cater to students,” Hanna Johnson, director of environmental affairs for Associated Students of Colorado State University, told the paper. “Johnson said Monday during a meeting of ASCSU representatives and the Fort Collins City Council.”

The Durango Herald reports how outreach is changing homeless camping culture in the area. “After years of shutting camps down, the Sheriff’s Office told residents camps would be left alone if they were kept clean and the campers obeyed the law, said Lt. Ed Aber, who started the effort.”

Cañon City Police will issue tickets to reckless drivers near a construction site, The Daily Record reports. “Clint Robertson, public information officer for CCPD, said in less than two hours Tuesday, the CCPD stopped 12 people who violated rules of the road.”

The Denver Post leads with a story today about Donald Trump electing to leave his businesses to focus on being president but “did not provide any details about how he planned to separate from his businesses, though he said legal documents were being prepared. He has previously said that he’d leave his business operations to his three eldest children — Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka.”

Colorado’s secretary of state, Wayne Williams, says an amendment passed by voters to amend the constitution to make it harder for voters to pass amendments to the constitution will make Colorado less of a guinea pig, reports The Gazette in Colorado Springs.

 

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Faint praise

The Office of Government Ethics has praised Donald Trump for saying he will divest himself of his interests in Trump Org. One problem: He never said it. Via the New York Times.

Joke’s on us

Another problem: It seems that the OGE was only kidding when it congratulated Trump. It was sarcasm. From the Office of Government Ethics. Anything is possible. Via Vox.

For keeps

From Frank Rich: And yet another problem. Trump will never walk away from his businesses. Via New York magazine.

Holy kowtow

How humiliating was Mitt Romney’s complete and utter humiliation at the feet of Donald Trump? Even more humiliating than that. Via the New Yorker.

No shade

Frank Bruni says it’s easy to make fun of Romney for groveling, but he may be America’s best chance. Via the New York Times.

Just fantastic

Now we ask, how humiliating is this: If you haven’t seen the readout of Trump’s conversation with the Pakistani prime minister, you’ve come to the right place. Where else can you see the president-elect of the United States saying Pakistan is a “fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people”? Fantastic. Via the Washington Post.

No savior

Trump may have saved some American jobs. But unless he plans to personally intervene with every company, it’s hard to see where his success translates into policy. Via the Los Angeles Times.

Pressure cooker

How much and what kind of pressure did Trump put to bear on Carrier to back down? Via the Atlantic.

Status quo

Democrats, facing a clear message from voters that change needs to come, respond by sticking with the same team that got them there. Via Vox.

Full circle

From the National Review: After all the fireworks, it’s still Romney and Pelosi. Go figure.

And taketh away

How Macomb County created and then killed the Clinton machine. It was, says Dem pollster Stan Greenberg, “political malpractice.” Via the Daily Beast.

 

Photo credit: Sarebear:), Creative Commons, Flickr 

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A University of Colorado Board of Regents member says he is concerned that the “tenor and tone” of the Trump campaign and the spate of violence and harassment directed toward minorities nationwide since the presidential election may lead to a drop in enrollment of international students.

A significant drop would mean a costly financial hit to the state’s universities, several of which rely upon international students — or, more precisely, the full tuition they pay.

“I am concerned that many of our international students may not feel they are welcome to study here in Colorado,” CU Regent Michael Carrigan told The Colorado Independent. He’s concerned not only for their well-being, but for the impact on the university, both financial and for reasons of diversity, should they decide to go elsewhere. “As a university community, we intend to remain inclusive and welcoming” of all students from all backgrounds, he said.

Carrigan pointed out that Colorado has among the lowest public funding for higher education in the country, and that makes colleges and universities like CU “reliant on populations that pay a premium and subsidize [the education] of Colorado residents. One of the best populations is international students.”

At CU Boulder, international student enrollment more than doubled between 2009 and 2016, from 1,248 to 3,079. Of those more than 3,000 students, two-thirds are from Asia, mostly from China. Another 492 are from countries in the Middle East, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In the past year, CU’s international admissions counselors recruited students in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Natalie Mikulak, associate director for admissions at CU Boulder, told The Independent that there hasn’t been a drop in applications from students from the Middle East. She noted that those students choose CU because of the community, high quality of life and the highly ranked academic programs.

In 2016-17, tuition revenue at CU Boulder from non-resident students, including international students, is projected at $399 million, about one-quarter of the $1.584 billion in annual revenue expected for the campus. Resident student tuition revenue is estimated at $208 million. Tuition and fees will bring in roughly half of the revenue for CU Boulder in 2016-17.

The potential for a drop in international student tuition revenue has become a sufficiently big concern that it became part of the discussion at a recent meeting of the CU Board of Regents.

Carrigan told The Independent that a recent budget presentation outlined risks to CU’s finances, including the potential for a drop in tuition dollars from international students. The presentation didn’t offer an explanation of why that drop might happen, Carrigan said.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for Colorado’s public colleges and universities still hasn’t caught up to 2008 levels. In 2014-15, Colorado ranked 48th out of 50 states for funding for public higher education. And Colorado is dead last among its six border states in public support for higher education.

According to the Colorado Department of Higher Education, in 2015, the last year for which enrollment numbers are available, almost 40,000 students who attended public and private colleges and universities in Colorado weren’t state residents. And that includes almost 10,000 students from about 90 foreign countries.

Muntadher Alzayer of Saudi Arabia is a junior at CU Boulder, majoring in computer science. He’s active with Project Nur, a national student initiative sponsored by the American Islamic Congress that promotes acceptance and mutual respect between Muslims and other communities. The project aims to help Islamic students who are afraid they will be targeted for harassment for their faith. “There’s much international students can do to help” each other, Alzayer said.

But for many international students, 2016 marked the first election cycle they’ve seen in person in the United States, and the rhetoric has been “scary,” Alzayer said. “It’s tough” on the students here as it affects them and their families back home. And he said that atmosphere is causing some prospective students to weigh their options for education in the United States. Alzayer said other countries like the United Kingdom may be safer options as well as being closer to home.

The United States has a strong and well-ranked education system, he added, but as he starts looking at graduate schools, the political climate and election results “is putting doubts in my mind about staying in the United States.”

Irene Griego, who chairs the CU Board of Regents, told The Independent that she believes it may be premature to worry about declines in international student enrollment. “We value our international students,” she said. “They bring great diversity to our campus,” and said that’s a value shared all around the university. “My hope is that we will be able to maintain that great relationship and that our students continue to feel valued.”

Griego said she has been talking with students, including those from foreign countries, and most want to know if there will be changes and how it will impact them. “Our universities will do a good job of keeping them informed,” Griego said. “This is a time when students are nervous and a little afraid, but we need to be patient and wait to see what happens.”

“It’s important for them to know they are valued that they feel safe,” she said. “We need to make sure they hear that from us and that we will work toward a safe campus.”

Just how lucrative is international student tuition?

At the undergraduate level, tuition for foreign students at CU Boulder varies depending on the academic program, but the range for 2016-17 is from $17,474 per semester for liberal arts and education to $19,022 per semester for business. That doesn’t include fees or on-campus room and board, which can easily add another $10,000 per semester. That’s a minimum of almost $45,000 per year; the University estimates cost of attendance at around $51,000 per year, which includes transportation and other necessities.

Compare that to what an undergraduate Colorado resident will pay for tuition per semester: a maximum of $4,884 for up to 18 credit hours per semester for liberal arts and education; and up to $8,646 for up to 18 hours per semester for business. Fees and room and board are roughly the same as they are for nonresident students.

The politically-motivated attacks against racial minorities and Muslims come at a time when international student enrollment is already struggling. Prior to the election, there were already signs that international students were reconsidering American education. The downturn in the oil industry hit countries in the Middle East hard. At CU Denver, the collapse of the Brazilian economy in 2015 also made difficult or impossible for some of those students to come back to the Colorado to continue their education, according to Carrigan.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that nationwide, there were more than 800 incidents of intimidation and harassment of blacks, Muslims, LGBT, Hispanic and women in the ten days following the Nov. 8 election. The SPLC reported 21 incidents took place in Colorado.

However, included in those 21 incidents is an attack on the Denver Trump office just before the election. In addition, this week, a Muslim student at Ohio State University went on a knife attack, injuring 11. The man, a Somali immigrant, claimed he was striking back against the attacks on Muslims and in support of ISIS. Campus police shot and killed the man.

Schools, including college campuses, were the most frequent locations for harassment or other violence, according to the SPLC.

And the recent uptick in attacks on students has some Middle Eastern countries worrying, too.

Several countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have issued travel warnings to their citizens coming to the United States, warning them of anti-Muslim violence and pointing to Trump’s plans to bar Muslims from coming to the United States. The UAE warning urged its college students to be particularly careful.

Colorado State University has the second-highest number of international students in Colorado, with about 2,000. Spokesman Mike Hooker told The Independent in an email that international student numbers remain strong, and that the university has not seen an impact from “recent questions about possible changes in policies” related to international students. “However, there is clearly a degree of concern and uncertainty at institutions across the country looking at if and how the current cultural climate and potential policy changes will impact the number of international students who chose to study in the United States. It’s an issue we’ll continue to monitor.”

The Colorado Department of Higher Education is also monitoring the situation. StudyColorado, which works with 35 public and private colleges and universities in Colorado, promotes the state’s higher education opportunities overseas.

Megan McDermott, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email that staff is following media stories about “potential opportunities and challenges that a new federal administration may present to international education. We know the rhetoric of the election has raised concerns among current international students around the country, as well as potential international students who now may be reconsidering their interest in studying in the United States.”

She noted that the state’s colleges and universities support their international students and says that the campuses will remain safe and welcoming places.

 

Photo credit: Ken Lund, via Creative Commons License, Flickr