Hundreds of activists and families from across Colorado gathered in Thornton Saturday to protest hydraulic fracturing near schools and neighborhoods.
Braving gray skies and frigid temperatures, demonstrators used songs, chants and signs to urge Colorado to “keep it in the ground,” the rallying cry of groups across the world who demand an end to fossil fuel extraction.
Bill McKibben, renowned author and founder of climate action group 350.org, gave words of encouragement to a crowd of roughly 200 attendees in the early morning. Throughout the day, participants danced, played music — stationary bikes provided power to the PA system — and eventually spelled out “Break Free CO” in yellow umbrellas painted to look like suns.
The event was part of a global month of action to “break free” from fossil fuels. Encouraged by an alliance of environmental groups led by 350.org, thousands of protesters worldwide have targeted coal mines, power plants and rail lines in recent weeks in what has been called the ‘largest ever global civil disobedience’ against carbon-based energy sources.
In Colorado, the demonstrators added a state-specific demand to their global message: the rights of communities to regulate oil and gas drilling.
“We’re here today because not only do we not want fracking on our public lands, we also don’t want fracking in our neighborhoods and communities,” said Micah Parkin, executive director of the climate action group 350 Colorado.
Demonstrators addressed the public land issue last Thursday, when hundreds of activists showed up to disrupt an oil and gas lease auction at the Bureau of Land Management in Lakewood. Saturday’s participants, gathered in the middle of a field from which they could easily see both Silver Creek Elementary School and a large drilling site, focused on local control.
The Colorado Supreme Court dealt a blow to anti-fracking communities earlier this month when it struck down local government prohibitions on the natural gas extraction method. Preexisting state law, the court ruled, invalidates both Longmont’s fracking ban and Fort Collins’ moratorium.
The decision also puts existing prohibitions in Boulder County and elsewhere at risk and leaves communities concerned about environmental and health risks powerless to keep fracking out.
The last line of defense, Saturday’s organizers said, comes in the form of two hopeful ballot initiatives. Proposed Initiative 75 would grant local governments the constitutional authority to impose regulations on oil and gas development within their borders, including bans and moratoria. Initiative 78 would require all new oil and gas operations to be at least 2,500 feet away from schools, homes and other occupied structures.
“These are the most concrete things that are happening in the country for fracking right now,” activist Suzanne Spiegel said of the measures.
Spiegel says it will be an uphill battle to pass the initiatives, expecting industry opposition in the form of both money and political influence.
“But what they don’t have,” she said of the opposing side, “is the hearts of the people.”
Proposed initiatives in Colorado currently need almost 100,000 petition signatures to earn a slot on the ballot. Spiegel hopes that an active grassroots campaign and a committed volunteer base will get the job done — because by the next election, it could be too late.
That’s because yet another proposed ballot initiative hopes to make it harder for Coloradans to amend the constitution.
Proposed initiative 95, also known as “Raise The Bar, Protect the Constitution,” would require future ballot initiative petitions to get signatures from 2 percent of the population in each of the state’s 55 senate districts. Once on the ballot, such initiatives would require 55 percent of the vote to pass.
Supporters of the initiative say it’s a way to ensure that smaller, rural districts have a say in the lawmaking process.
“The populated urban areas around Denver dictate access to the ballot. Meanwhile, the rest of the state, including rural Colorado, deserves a voice when it comes to placing Constitutional questions on the ballot,” the initiative’s website writes.
But Razz Gormley, co-founder of Frack Free Colorado, says such a change will simply keep grassroots movements out.
“Only well-funded, monied interests could afford to run a ballot initiative under the guidelines they’re trying to pass,” said Gormley. “It would essentially give any county in the state veto power over any initiative.”
Proponents of the Raise the Bar initiative call for a halt to what they see as an overabundance of amendments to the state’s constitution. Indeed, Colorado sees more ballot initiatives than almost any other states.
But Colorado 350’s Parkin says the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling against fracking bans makes ballot initiatives more important than ever. For those who seek regulation against fossil fuel extraction, she says, it and nonviolent direct action are the only options left.
“We’re left now with the ballot initiative process and putting our bodies on the line, and that’s it,” said Parkin. “We’ve done everything else we could do.”