[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast election season, wary Colorado Democrats joined elated Republicans in hating on Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis for launching what was shaping up to become a ferocious ballot-initiative fight over boom-time oil-and-gas drilling regulations.
Democrats were terrified Polis’s initiatives would draw a downpour of oil-industry cash and rile up already riled-up Republican voters. In the final weeks before Election Day, they succeeded at convincing Polis to pause his gas-patch political attack.
But, a year later, the 2016 election season is ramping up and Democrats fear they will have to go through the entire dance with Polis again.
None of the problems that motivated him to act in 2014 have been satisfactorily addressed. According to most assessments of its work, the blue ribbon task force established last year by Gov. John Hickenlooper in negotiation with Polis to review drilling regulations was a bust. Its recommendations have been widely panned as weak. Gas-patch residents swarmed with drillers still feel powerless and frustrated. In any potential deal-making with Polis this time around, there will be no task force trump-card to play.
If Democrats in Denver and in Washington are worried, they should be.
Although there are a lot of people who don’t want Polis to make the same kind of trouble in 2016 that he started to make in 2014, there are a lot of people who do want him to make that kind of trouble — or at least some version of that kind of trouble. And Polis seems to be one of them.
In an email to the Independent last week, Polis signaled as strongly as ever his sympathy for the view widespread in his district that the state legislature can not be counted on to provide relief — that they will not vote for regulations while staring down the long line of well-heeled oil-and-gas lobbyists who roam the Capitol.
“I’ve always believed that this issue could and should be solved through the legislative process, but given the unwillingness to address the issue head-on, I’m not sure what other options are left besides direct democracy,” Polis wrote. “Fracking a few hundred feet from homes and schools combined with toothless state laws and little-to-no oversight is harming my constituents. Coloradans are frustrated and disappointed, and rightly so. I am too. That’s why I remain committed to solving this issue in a sensible way and finally bringing relief to my constituents.”
Polis struck the same tone last Thursday morning in a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing — a mix of frustrated and committed and impatient. He was asking a witness about the rights of homeowners who live atop federal mineral leases. What kind of real access to information are the homeowners afforded before the industry rigs move in and the drilling begins, Polis wanted to know. General public notice about drilling plans is one thing, he said, but it’s not good enough. He finished the exchange at a rapid clip.
“Yes, we appreciate that everybody in the world gets some notice in a federal register somewhere that they can look at, but there’s actually someone who lives there, and we need to take that into account, because those are my constituents.”
The apple cart
Gas-patch activists say that the one thing of substance the governor’s task force may have accomplished is that it won a larger audience for the kind of stories Polis has been listening to for years across his district.
His constituents want to wrest real control over where oil-and-gas wells are sited in their cities and towns. As things stand, they have no real say. An overworked state commission permits drilling activity and, deluged with applications over the course of the boom, members have green-lighted operations in backyards, school fields and hospital grounds. Which means that, even as oil prices have plummeted, eighteen-wheelers continue to come and go through neighborhoods at a regular clip. Homes shake from the popular deep-well extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Spotlights shine all night long. Spills occur nearly every day. Noxious fumes are released into the air. And in the heart of the gas patch, just outside of Greeley, waste-water injection wells nearly a mile deep have generated earthquakes on the surface.
That’s what motivated Polis to put his own money — about $2 million — behind a series of ballot initiatives that would bypass the state legislature and ask voters directly to grant local governments more authority over drilling.
Republicans called him a political “terrorist” who was anti-energy and anti-jobs. Democrats were exasperated that he was upsetting the apple cart.
The state’s top two Democratic officeholders — U.S. Senator Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper — were running for re-election, and the last thing they wanted to have to fight against was an oil-and-gas lobby pouring tens of millions of dollars into messaging that would trade on Coloradans’ deep-rooted sympathies for the industry.
Polis pulled his initiatives, but Colorado Democrats got hammered anyway. Hickenlooper won a second term, but in a closer race than anyone would have guessed possible. Udall lost. So did former state Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, who was running for Congress, and the balance of power in the state Senate flipped to a one-seat Republican majority.
Next year, freshman Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is up for re-election. He’s the senator who was appointed to office and then had to run his first-ever political campaign in tea party wave year 2010. He crossed the finish line with a mere 15,000 vote lead out of 1.6 million cast. Bennet didn’t comment for this article, but his staff is clearly closely watching developments in the state’s fracking wars, gaming out scenarios, whether formally or informally, and planning best responses.
Indeed, the fact that most officials and staffers as well as gas-patch activists declined to speak on the record for this story points to the continuing volatility of the issue and the sensitivity, even this early in the election cycle, around Polis’s involvement.
But sources were quick to offer reasons why they think Polis might not directly take up the issue of suburban fracking this election season.
In the face of criticism, Hickenlooper is still making the case for his task force in a way that begs for patience. He called the members’ recommendations a good “next step” and explained that increasing drilling safety has always been an incremental process, “a story of continuous improvement,” as he put it.
There is also the matter of lawsuits filed by the state aimed at lifting local fracking bans or moratoriums passed over the last several election cycles by voters in five towns — four in Polis’s district and the fifth on the border in Longmont. Those suits are still wending their way through courts and, even though first-round rulings have stacked up against the bans as unconstitutional, there’s still the chance that the state Supreme Court will be swayed by events on the ground and rule in favor of the bans before Election Day 2016.
Such a ruling would satisfy many of the frustrated gas patch voters and also establish precedent for the rest of the state.
Finally, there’s the fact that Polis lost the faith of many environmental activists when he pulled his ballot initiatives last year.
“I think Polis knows a lot of people on this side couldn’t trust him with more ballot initiatives,” said Phil Doe, a Littleton resident and former Department of the Interior staffer who is committed to reintroduce his own anti-fracking initiative next year. “A lot of people worked to support Polis’s efforts, and they won’t work with him again.”
If not now, when?
Still, suburban fracking continues to expand. The mineral rich Niobrara shale formation being pocked with wells in Polis’s district lies underneath the entire metro Front Range. Leases are now being worked on the outskirts of Denver.
Indeed, Polis points at the experience of the task force as more evidence of the problem in Denver that has made ballot initiatives so attractive.
“The task force heard from thousands of Coloradans pleading for better protection, not simply more consultation,” he said. “Unfortunately, while a majority of the task force agreed with this principle, the oil-and-gas industry blocked their recommendations.”
In January, Polis talked to the Fort Collins Coloradoan about an enormous Great Western Oil project planned for a Windsor subdivision — one that would include 2 vapor-recovery units, 3 gas compressors, 8 wells, 9 water tanks, 20 separators and 45 oil tanks. He said he was in talks with the governor and state regulators to protect the nearby residents but that it was obvious Coloradans couldn’t accept as adequate a system where “the governor and I… need to get involved each and every time homeowners and their families are threatened.”
Activists, like those in the Coloradans Against Fracking Coalition, now are talking about bringing a ballot proposal that would ban fracking statewide. Polis, however, has never talked about a state ban. He talks about local control and increased set-backs for well sites. Those kinds of proposals are popular across partisan lines. They’re not about charged topics like climate change or the end of fossil fuel. They’re about protecting property, easing road congestion and lowering levels of noise, air and light pollution. And Polis still has the kind of money, experience and name recognition that can give a statewide ballot initiative a vital boost out of the gate.
What’s more, sources say that the risks to Democrats posed by a Polis-backed local-control ballot initiative will be less severe this election cycle. Presidential election years favor Democratic candidates. In Colorado, they draw some 700,000 more voters to the polls than do typical midterm elections, including higher percentages of liberal-leaning young and minority voters. Even if an anti-fracking ballot initiative appears on the ballot in 2016 — and there’s likely to be more than one — Democrats are confident that the effect any of them or all of them might have on drawing voters to cast ballots at the worst would be even, neither more beneficial to Republicans or Democrats .
If Democrats in Denver and in Washington are worried about the plans of gas-patch Congressman Polis, they should be.
[Top photo: Rep. Jared Polis speaking at TEDxBoulder via TEDx.]