BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Residents here have joined Coloradans in four other Front Range towns and voted to either suspend or ban natural gas hydraulic fracturing within city limits.
It took 13 hours in a crowded basement room at the Broomfield City and County building to tally what turned out to be the 164 valid provisional ballots that flipped the Election Day tally on a citizen anti-fracking initiative. The initiative gained 30 votes yesterday. It was down 13 votes before the counting began and now appears to have passed the moratorium on drilling by 17 votes.
The city and county elections canvas board is scheduled to certify the results later this morning.
The vote has made national news and will send ripples across the state and the nation.
“We felt really good as the night progressed,” said Nate Troup, a member of Our Broomfield, the issue committee behind the initiative. “We knew we could win because, as we went around the town since March, we felt we had our finger on the pulse.”
[pullquote]“Folks were breaking party ranks on our issue. We had die hard Republicans in our group. They don’t want industrial activity like this going on in their backyard. Local control was a big component for all of our supporters.”[/pullquote]
Hydraulic fracturing blasts millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand deep into the earth to loosen gas. But the process also sets loose toxic minerals, including uranium, which many believe can leach into ground water. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of frack water that returns to the surface is unusable. Companies store it in plastic lined pits, many of which were overrun in recent Front Range flooding.
Broomfield is now one of four towns in the boom-time gas patch North of Denver that suspended or banned fracking in last week’s election: Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins. Nearby Longmont voted to ban fracking last year, drawing a lawsuit filed by oil-and-gas interests and the state that may determine the legality of the local initiatives.
The vote in Broomfield was the one politics watchers believe matters most.
Boulder and Fort Collins are liberal university towns. Lafayette and Longmont are working-class Democratic towns with large Latino populations. Broomfield, though, is a moderately conservative suburban town, and it’s clear that the moratorium vote here passed by flattening typical partisan and ideological barriers.
Broomfield voters last week elected new Republican Mayor Randy Ahrens over Democratic challenger Dennis McCloskey by a landslide 22 points. That means many Ahrens voters joined with McCloskey voters to support the moratorium on fracking.
“Yes, Broomfield does matter,” said B.J. Nikkel, a former Republican legislator and now an advisor to the Broomfield Balanced Energy Coalition, which opposed the moratorium. “The city is representative, more of a mirror to Colorado than the liberal cities that have opposed fracking. To us, the close vote shows that when people have balanced information, it puts us in a place where we can prevail.”
Nikkel cautioned against reading too much into the vote.
“There’s been a lot of hype and disinformation over the last few years,” she said. “The [Broomfield] city council has collaborated with the oil companies to make a plan for the city. The council represents the people — and the council members clearly think fracking is safe.”
That line of argument may be a hard sell with the kind of concerned citizens who supported the ballot initiative.
The citizen-passed fracking bans in Colorado are big news in states like Pennsylvania and California, where the oil-and-gas industry has made similarly aggressive plays that encroach on longtime agricultural and residential spaces.That’s the case partly because the grassroots initiatives in Colorado seek to increase local control over driller permitting and are fueled by a growing perception, here and elsewhere, that state and federal lawmakers are loath to take action that runs counter to the interests of the powerful oil and gas industry.
“You know it was interesting. As I looked around the room tonight, I suspected I was one of the only people at the table from Broomfield,” said Troup, referring to a group of consultants from Colorado conservative-politics lobby shop EIS Solutions. They provided much of the input for the opposition team during the provisional ballot counting.
“They come here, they spend a lot of money, you know. They’re professionals. This is their job. They’ve got a lot of resources.”
Troup said the consultant team was part of the oil-and-gas network the initiative attracted to Broomfield and that spent large sums to defeat it. He said his group was outspent 25 to 1. Reports put the totals at $244,00 to $10,000.
Winning against that kind of lopsided spending doesn’t happen unless the issue really resonates, he said.
“Look, folks were breaking party ranks on our issue. We knew that all along. We had die hard Republicans in our group. They don’t want industrial activity like this going on in their backyard. Local control was a big component for all of our supporters.”
Troup said local zoning laws are an accepted part of municipal life. Neighbors can’t build fences over a certain height. It makes sense to people that your neighbor shouldn’t be able to put a fracking tower in their driveway.
He said it’s a feeling the industry and its consultants don’t seem to understand.
“The split estate is a concept that may have run its course,” he said, referring to the idea that drilling companies can own the land under your house and can do what they want with it, even while you’re living your life above, making dinner, raising children, reading book on the porch swing.
“They can’t say that it’s all about their property rights. It’s not mutually exclusive. You can’t say it’s all about property rights while you’re crowding into our backyards with your machinery.”
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he close vote in Broomfield is also being seen as a test of a new election law passed in the spring — HB 1303, the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act. Republicans have stridently opposed the bill, which seeks to expand voter participation by, for example, directing clerks to mail ballots to all registered voters and by extending voter registration periods. The bill’s critics have characterized it as an invitation to fraud.
The Broomfield loss has already fueled more attacks on the bill.
“Inconsistent application of Colorado’s new election law cast a taint,” read the Balanced Energy Coalition after the tally was announced last night.
“The uncertainties around the Broomfield vote count and the new voter law make us question the accuracy of tonight’s outcome,” Nikkel was quoted to say in the release. “We will vigorously review the entire process and look at all legal options for ensuring the integrity of this election.”
The Broomfield election clearly raised questions, mostly tied to varying voter-residency requirements.
There were three different residency categories for voters in the elections here. If you had resided in Broomfield for at least 30 days before Election Day, you could vote the entire ballot. If you had lived here for 25 days, you could vote on state candidates and issue questions and on the school district candidates, but not on the municipal races and issues, including fracking. If you had resided here for only 22 days, you could vote on state candidates and issues, but nothing more.
Yet, all of the ballots included the municipal races and issues, including the moratorium on fracking, and so most voters naturally filled them out completely, rightly or wrongly.
That meant two election judges, one Republican and one Democrat, were tasked with separating out ballots that raised residency questions and then copying the votes onto blank ballots, being careful to leave off marks made on issues and candidates for which the residents were ineligible to cast votes.
It was something to see — and watchers and members of the press gathered round. Two election judges very slowly opened and laid flat the ballots and then copied and, in effect, changed them — and the voters who cast the originals will probably never know anything about what happened.
Although there were only 31 of 16,000 ballots cast that raised residency questions, in a race where the difference on Election Day between winning and losing was a mere 13 votes, every ballot clearly matters.