DENVER — Another ballot initiative aimed to address fears about oil-and-gas drilling has landed at the Capitol.
The initiative is the second introduced since the beginning of the year. It would add a section to the Colorado Constitution underlining the legal responsibility of state officials to protect the environment and seek damages from polluters. It would also make it easier for citizens to sue polluters and it demands that people or organizations pay a legal price for spreading misinformation for profit about the environment and the environmental risks posed by industrial activity.
The “public trust resources” initiative was submitted for review to Capitol legislative attorneys last week. Its main proponent, Littleton-resident Philip Doe, is a former Department of the Interior staffer who has grown increasingly less confident that officials can adequately stand up to the enormously wealthy and politically aggressive oil-and-gas industry to protect the public interest.
“This is nothing new. We the people are the sovereigns of these resources they’re developing,” Doe told the Colorado Independent. “What’s new is that it’s become clear that the regulatory system doesn’t work for the people. We’ve trusted the lawmakers long enough. But they’re going to destroy our air and water and land just because somebody comes in with a big plan, right? And then we have to clean it all up.
“This is nothing radical,” he said. “We’re not luddites. We’re not looking to halt development or target industry. It’s not asking too much to simply say: ‘You can’t do this unless you’re sure, based on real science, that you won’t be doing be any harm.’ I think most citizens can see the sense in that.”
Doe said he is prepping for a meeting with Legislative Counsel scheduled for next week.
The initiative is six short paragraphs long.
“Public trust resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come,” it reads, and continues:
[blockquote]The state government and its agents, as trustees, shall protect these public trust resources against substantial impairment, including pollution from external sources. In satisfying the state’s trust responsibilities, the precautionary principle shall always be applied; if an action or policy has a suspected risk of substantially impairing public trust resources, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those proposing to take actions…
Any person, corporation or other entity found to be manipulating data, reports, or scientific information for private profit shall be referred for prosecution for any criminal offenses that may apply in addition to other penalties the state may impose, including loss of charter to operate in the state. [/blockquote]
Last week, a coalition of citizens groups introduced a ballot initiative that would grant local governments the power to regulate oil-and-gas development. As the law stands now, state officials alone set regulations on oil and gas. Five cities in the northern Front Range gas patch — a stretch of high plains twice the size of Connecticut and teeming with boom-time gas drillers — have voted for bans or temporary halts on extraction as drillers have encroached on residential areas. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper has opposed those bans, arguing that a patchwork quilt of regulations across the state will hobble a thriving sector of the state economy. The industry has filed a series of lawsuits against the cities to lift the ban and has drawn support from the state in the first of those suits against the city of Longmont.
Industry representatives watching public opinion in the state move fast toward greater control over drilling have already bought up hundreds of thousands of dollars in television air time for the weeks leading up the November election.
It’s unclear what kind of support Doe and his co-author, Lakewood resident Barbara Mills-Bria, have so far lined up for their initiative. They’ll be competing in a crowded field. Much political attention and capital will be dedicated to candidate races this mid-term election year, where Democratic majorities in the state legislature hang in the balance and where the governor and Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Udall are running for reelection. Indeed, even members of the coalition backing the anti-fracking local-control ballot initiative introduced last week say they hadn’t yet heard much about Doe’s initiative.
Doe said he’s taking a long view.
“Look, if not this year, then next,” he said. “I don’t care if it takes a decade. This initiative is not a silver bullet, but it gives people a chance, and we got to start somewhere.”