The 30-second television ad reeks of ominous.
A handheld camera shows a faceless young man with dark skin, wearing ratty cargo pants and wielding a pen, knocking on a front door with a petition in hand. “Professional signature gatherers are hired guns who get paid when you sign their petition,” the male narrator says. A montage of doom flashes by: charts of red-arrowed economic downturns and a harried couple struggling with their bills. The narrator warns of the economic catastrophe that would follow any restrictions on oil and gas development. “Your signature is incredibly valuable,” he says. “Don’t just give it away to some petitioner on the street.”
As the ad’s obligatory “Paid for by…” disclosure appears on the screen with a colorful “Protect Colorado” logo, the narrator concludes: “Here’s your chance to show you do care about Colorado’s future. Decline to sign.”
Your “valuable” signature is the one that could end up on citizen-backed petitions to place two fracking-related initiatives on the November ballot. They’re initiatives that the energy industry vehemently – and expensively – opposes.
The first measure, Initiative 75, is a response to the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling in May that invalidated restrictions and moratoria on fracking put into place by local communities like Longmont and Fort Collins. If passed, it would give local governments more say in citing and regulating oil and gas activity in their jurisdictions.
The second, Initiative 78, seeks to respond to growing scientific concerns that hydraulic fracturing – a controversial industrial process used to unlock deep reserves of oil and gas – affects public health, air quality and the quality of life of residents near gas extraction facilities. It proposes mandatory 2,500-foot setbacks between certain energy development and houses, schools and water sources.
Petition organizers have until 3 p.m. on August 8 to present 98,492 signatures for each ballot initiative to the Secretary of State for validation.
Both proposed ballot measures seek to address citizens’ ongoing concerns about the breakneck speed of oil and gas development, especially in residential communities along the Front Range. Those concerns are being amplified as supporters of the fracking initiatives increasingly experience the force of the industry’s public relations machine.
Documents obtained by The Colorado Independent show that the “decline to sign” campaign is part of an orchestrated, multi-year effort by both Colorado-based and national energy giants. One of their front groups is Protect Colorado, which funded the petition-gatherer-of-doom TV ad and is actively seeking to thwart citizens from qualifying the two measures for the ballot.
Protect Colorado is but one wellhead in the energy industry’s fields of public relations strategies. In a transcript of a speech before the annual meeting of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission’s (IOGCC) in September 2015, Mark Truax of PAC/WEST Communications laid out a playbook for the industry response to Colorado’s anti-fracking groundswell that took the industry by surprise a few years ago. By 2013, despite being outspent by industry by a large margin, community rights laws had passed from El Paso County near Colorado Springs to Lafayette in Boulder County.
“That was the wake up call for the industry to go, ‘uh-oh,’” Truax told the crowd. “We’ve got some big problems that we have to correct.”
That correction effort, as spelled out by Truax, began with a $10 million media war chest as starter money and is now taking form in efforts such as the “decline to sign” campaign and other ads designed to undermine Initiatives 75 and 78. The campaign strategy goes beyond just propaganda efforts to influence public opinion. It also seeks to manipulate regulatory agencies, stack local governments with supporters of energy development and undermine citizen efforts to seek further accountability and safety measures from the industry.
“This is a sophisticated and well-resourced effort,” said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for environmental advocacy group Conservation Colorado. The organization officially endorsed Initiative 75 earlier this week but has no official position on #78.
“I think we’re going to see even more examples of how large this ‘decline to sign’ movement is as we get closer to the deadline,” Goad adds. “The oil and gas industry is willing to pour millions of dollars towards trying to snuff out democracy.”
Truax’s speech details how industry giants Anadarko and Noble funded much of the effort by forming CRED, or Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, beginning in late 2013. The organization is a non-profit 501c(6), similar to a trade group, and has cast its goal as a “continual multi-year education effort.” That effort includes extensive research, polling, mail and phone testing, as well as digital testing. Truax boasted that the industry created a database of 3.9 million Colorado voters, knocked on 1.7 million doors and conducted nine statewide surveys – all of which came at an undisclosed cost.
Much of the research pointed to a tough PR hurdle: 88 percent of Coloradans knew about fracking, and a lot of them didn’t much like the sound of it. As well pads, truck traffic and industrial sites started creeping deeper into residential developments in Weld, Adams, El Paso and Boulder counties, residents who weren’t the usual tree-hugging suspects became activists and started making noise. One key question this growing alliance posed was whether the environmental impacts of fracking were adding up faster than scientists were able to quantify them.
“This movement has been driven by moms, dads and grandparents fighting to protect the health and safety of their loved ones, homeowners defending their property values, and scientists, engineers and medical professionals,” said Razz Gormley, a campaign director for Frack Free Colorado, which is involved in the initiative fight.
All these residents, Gormley said, recognize that a slew of emerging, peer-reviewed scientific papers prove that fracking “has no place near our homes, schools, playgrounds and water sources.”
As groups like Frack Free Colorado and others were gaining traction, Truax’s speech outlined another problem: the prospect of an increasing number of cities and counties mobilizing to enact fracking moratoria or other restrictions on land where energy companies could site their facilities.
“It’s the year of the whack-a-mole,” Truax said. “…We have this increased opposition and all these groups have popped up in the last 12 months.”
Seemingly alarmed by mounting losses against populist anti-fracking groups, the industry pulled out all the stops and launched its new campaign for CRED on September 5, 2013, which coincided with a Broncos-Ravens Thursday night football game. The “tease campaign” kicked off with a tag line that raised the group’s profile immediately: “Are you ready for some fracking?”
“We were 0 and 5 going in to this and we really needed to change the tide,” Truax said, referring to the successful citizen efforts in Lafayette, Longmont, Boulder, and Ft. Collins to tighten the reins on energy development. “All of this really kind of changed the way that we work.”
With $10 million dollars in “media reserve” in late 2014, CRED ran ads in the U.S. Senate race between Mark Udall and Cory Gardner and mobilized industry foot soldiers to canvass when any new towns started signaling that they, too, might want to pass moratoria on drilling.
In 2015, the industry group made “a preemptive strike in Fort Collins,” which involved “making sure that the right city council members got elected to the city council to stop a potential fracking ban,” according to the transcript.
in February 2015, after photographer John Fielder organized an anti-fracking rally in Denver, the industry “took the wind out of [the anti-fracking movement’s] sails in about a total of seven days.” Truax went on to tout that “We then elected a pro city council” in Denver – a boast that showed a disregard for the fact that at least some people would find such blatant industry intervention in the political process offensive.
“We’ve been able to keep municipal ballots and municipal ballot measures off in every city and county across Colorado in 2014,” Truax said.
The 2015 transcript, obtained by the environmental group Greenpeace, shows that Truax looked ahead to 2016, anticipating that the “opposition” was going to run some statewide ballots – as has, in fact, turned out to be true.
“We have to be ready for that strike in the event that they do play that card,” Truax said.
In his speech, Truax went on to admit that he had spoken to Matt Lepore of the Colorado Oil and Conservation Commission (COGCC) on numerous occasions, strategizing on how to get more Coloradans to have a more positive image of fracking. To critics of the COGCC – a state agency that has ultimate power over approving gas development – this revelation of a cozy relationship between COGCC and the industry is hardly surprising. Just last week, the commission approved a drilling site in a retirement community in Battlement Mesa near Grand Junction despite overwhelming objections from the residents. After the decision, Doug Saxton, with the Battlement Concerned Citizens group declared flatly that the COGCC’s system for listening to residents’ complaints and making balanced decisions has been an “utter failure.”
The Battlement Mesa group isn’t alone in its perception that COGCC is playing with a marked deck.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and they’ve never said no to an oil and gas location,” said Matt Sura, an attorney who represents municipalities and private homeowners in their negotiations with energy companies. “The COGCC gives the public the ability to comment on their website and the ability to suck it up. That’s it.”
Perhaps the oddest claim in the recent “decline to sign” television ad featuring the dark-skinned signature gatherer is the narrator’s assertion that “special interests are trying to reshape our Constitution to suit them,” as a copy of the Bill of Rights is shown burning like the beginning of the old “Bonanza” television show. Karen Crummy, CRED’s director and also spokeswoman for the ad’s funder, industry front group “Protect Colorado,” repeats this claim with the assurance of somebody on a script.
“These so-called grassroots groups are backed by out-of-state and international organizations whose mission is to ban responsible oil and natural gas development. They are extreme and out-of-step with the majority of Coloradans,” she says.
Crummy might want to tell that to Paddy McClelland, a Denver real estate agent and self-described mom who has been out gathering signatures to qualify 75 and 78 for the ballot on her own time and her own dime. McClelland scoffs at the industry’s portrait of her and her fellow signature gatherers as outsiders and extremists. She simply feels that the industry has become too powerful in Colorado and has systematically ignored the voices of residents like her who’d like to see some common sense regulations such as keeping round-the-clock, mini-gas refineries away from schools and housing developments.
“It’s as dirty and sick as it gets the more you find out,” she says, referring both to the impacts of the industrial activity and the industry’s public relations tactics.
Teams of people like McClellan have volunteered for free to gather signatures at neighborhood events, in public parks and at other venues. Small nonprofit groups like Food and Water Watch and Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Environment (a CREED to respond to the industry’s CRED) have recently begin hiring signature gatherers in the final weeks before the August 8 petition deadline.
Some of these signature gatherers say they’re experiencing what appear to be organized efforts to make their jobs more difficult. Carina Tennessen, a 36-year-old single mom and former schoolteacher living in Denver, took a $13-an-hour job gathering signatures for 75 and 78. Like McClellan, she objects to the characterization by the industry that she’s some “out-of-state interest” with only her pocketbook as motivation.
“This is my home,” she says, noting that the fracking issue resonates with her because she’s a former schoolteacher, and her “heart goes out” to teachers and students who have to work and learn a thousand feet from active gas wells emitting chemicals like benzene and humming with non-stop compressor station noises and thrumming truck traffic.
“It must be just horrifying for teachers in these communities,” she adds.
Tennessen doesn’t have a lot of time to donate for free since she’s struggling to get by. Her paid signature-gathering gig has been an opportunity, she says, “to do something I’m passionate about.”
Last Sunday, Tennessen was gathering signatures in Denver’s Civic Center Park when a group of five people in their early 20s approached her aggressively and got in her face, screaming, “You’re taking our jobs! You’re taking our jobs!”
Tennessen has been trained to simply walk away from such confrontations, and she did. But the group followed her, eventually even pulling out a camera to film her during her break. When she started asking her harassers some questions about the “jobs” that these people had in the industry, none would answer. “They were just there to follow us around. We were being targeted by these people,” she said.
“Honestly, it was really scary. I almost didn’t want to come back to gather more signatures today,” she said the day after her encounter. Then she paused. “But I did. This is too important.”
The energy industry has promoted a signature gathering effort of its own – for Initiative 66, which would change the way initiatives can be placed on the ballot in Colorado. The so-called “Raise the Bar” effort, if it passes, would make it even more difficult to get ballot measures like 75 and 78 on the ballot.
Initiative 66 is being spearheaded by Blitz Canvassing and EIS Solutions, both of which are registered in the state of Colorado as petition-gatherers. The petition entity license for both groups is signed by Jake Zambrano, who has worked for some of the state’s more conservative elected officials, such as former Governor Bill Owens and former Western Slope Congressman Scott McGinnis. Critics say that, like the “decline to sign” effort, “Raise the Bar” is another example of ways the industry attempts to thwart direct democracy.
There are other signs that the initiative wars are heating up.
Last week, organizers of a campaign to gather signatures for a ballot measure that would have relaxed the so-called TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights) law suspended their efforts. TABOR, which passed by ballot initiative in 1992, restricts how tax money can be gathered and spent. The initiative’s main proponent, Colorado Priorities, issued a statement that there was simply too much noise in the system to get the traction they needed.
“The crowded ballot has made it difficult to secure the resources necessary for us to win in November,” wrote Colorado Priorities’ co-chairmen, Dan Ritchie and Al Yates, both of whom have more access than most to move political causes.
The availability of resources seems to be no obstacle to the energy industry, which continues expanding its anti-regulation strategies in ways that are both visible and invisible. The industry has even made efforts to keep its “decline to sign” campaign’s public face a little lighter – and even funny. It has hired people to dress up as yellow, life-sized pencils, complete with pink eraser tops, to wander the streets of Denver with signs that say, “Decline to sign #75 & #78.”
In one video clip sent to The Colorado Independent, an unidentified pencil guy is being asked how much he gets paid and whether there were other jobs like his to be had. Pencil guy pulls out his phone and gives the name and phone number of the ad agency that hired him.
When The Independent called that number, a woman answered the phone, then turned the phone over to her boss. He called his client to ask them how to handle the media inquiry. The ad man suggested we call Karen Crummy at Protect Colorado.
The pencil guy admits his gig has its downsides.
“It feels like shit to fucking wear this thing,” he says. “But it’s 25 bucks an hour.”
Photo credit: Katie Camosy