Broomfield resident and psychologist Lois VanderKooi was relaxing at home earlier this month after a long day working in her private practice. She spread out on the couch, picked up her phone, and started rotating through the five Words with Friends games she plays with her brother and old college friends. Suddenly, an ad popped up: “Say NO to more political division. Say NO to the threat of lawsuits. Say NO to Question 301.” The ad invited VanderKooi to watch a video and sign up for more information.
She moved on to her next game.
VanderKooi, who describes herself as a “preacher’s kid” from the Midwest who has lived in Colorado most of her adult life and in Broomfield since 2002, can’t figure out how she was targeted for these ads. She had recently become involved with supporting Question 301, a citizen-driven ballot initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot. Question 301 is yet another effort on the part of Colorado communities to exert some control over the large industrial oil and gas operations that are steadily encroaching on schools, playgrounds, water sources, and subdivisions across the Front Range. The 301 initiative seeks to amend the Broomfield Charter to provide local elected officials the power to insist that any proposed oil and gas development near residential areas prove that the industrial activity will not affect residents’ health and safety before granting approval to drill.
In what has become a familiar election-time ritual in the state, Question 301 is being aggressively – and expensively – opposed by the oil and gas industry.
Targeted ads are a fact of life for most internet users these days, but the Words with Friends pop-up still unnerved VanderKooi, who realized then that the industry not only had big money at its disposal, but was willing to spend it on some very sophisticated techniques. She had recently participated as a member of Broomfield’s “Oil and Gas Comprehensive Plan Update Committee,” a group of citizens tasked by Broomfield council members to make recommendations regarding proposed residential oil and gas development in this suburban enclave of 65,000 residents halfway between Boulder and Denver. The soft-spoken VanderKooi has experienced heightened tension, including heated exchanges, between industry and residents as she has become more involved in the community’s fight to limit hydraulic fracking close to homes and the city’s planned drinking water reservoir.
The next day, the Words with Friends ads reappeared, and VanderKooi started noticing other ads on her Facebook feed, extolling the benefits of fracking. The ads linked to Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, or CRED, an oil and gas industry-funded group that was deeply involved in the last election’s successful efforts to block citizen-sponsored initiatives to limit residential oil and gas development. “I thought, ‘Wow, they have a lot of money to be able to to this,’” Vanderkooi said.
Why would the oil and gas industry be so vested in a small town citizens’ initiative? The answer is definitely in the question: Question 301.
Hot council seats
In Broomfield, voters will soon elect or re-elect five members and a mayor to their 10-member council. The election has the potential to raise or reduce the City and County of Broomfield’s willingness to challenge the legal limits of local control over oil and gas development. As it stands now, the council is typically split on such issues. If just two seats change hands, the outcomes of important votes could look quite different.
These council races are receiving outside money, but not to the extent of the No on 301 campaign. Conservative-leaning PR firm PAC/West, for example, received more than $14,000 from the independent expenditure committee Broomfield for a Stronger Economy for assistance with the campaigns of candidates Rick Fernandez, Kim Groom, Karl Honegger and Elizabeth Law-Evans. The committee’s stated mission is to “elect pro-business candidates running for Broomfield City Council regardless of party affiliation.”
The stakes of the upcoming Broomfield council election came into sharp focus on Oct. 24, when the current council voted 6-4 to approve a contentious Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Denver-based Extraction Oil and Gas to drill 84 wells at pads situated around the city. Several of those “yes” votes were cast by council members being challenged by candidates who have vowed to fight oil and gas development more aggressively.
The vote came at 1 a.m. last Wednesday morning after an emotional public comment period, where 90 people signed up to speak for three minutes apiece to council chambers that overflowed into an adjacent foyer. The meeting was also televised live. A majority of the speakers voiced concerns about the health and safety implications of so many wells, citing complaints about nose bleeds, vibrating houses, and horrible smells that neighboring Erie residents had filed to state regulators about recent activity in their town. County commissioners and residents of adjacent Adams County chimed in, since last-minute changes in Extraction’s proposal placed new wells close to the Adams County line, near well water and houses there. Property rights advocates voiced concern about the impact of the agreement on Broomfield’s Wildgrass neighborhood residents, who own their mineral rights and were being threatened by “force pooling” to lease them to Extraction. Forced pooling is part of an arcane statute in Colorado law that permits energy companies to compel mineral owners to lease their rights, even if those owners object. At Wildgrass, most of the residents do object.
Many people at the meeting urged the council members to simply wait a couple weeks until the election, where a new council could consider the Extraction proposal, and Question 301 will have been answered.
Residents who spoke in favor of signing the agreement said that the deal was the best they could achieve, given the state’s stranglehold on regulatory authority over the industry. Extraction had agreed to concessions, they argued, such as slightly bigger setbacks between wells and homes than state law requires, and the use of pipelines to transport hydrocarbons from the well pads, which will reduce truck traffic.
Some council members took up residents’ pleas to postpone the vote, but the tie on that amendment was broken with a “no” vote by Mayor Randy Ahrens, who is also up for re-election.
In the final, tense exchanges between council members and Extraction representatives, Extraction Vice President and General Counsel Eric Christ laid down the gantlet: If the Council didn’t agree to terms then and there, he said, Extraction might vastly increase the number of wells they would drill and potentially increase truck traffic by forgoing the pipelines, since state law would allow that. “This is our last and final offer,” Christ said.
After the vote, Councilman Kevin Kreeger, a vocal opponent of residential fracking who is not up for re-election, said the Council’s decision should elevate the importance of passing Question 301. “If anybody says, `We don’t need 301 because the council is standing up for us,’” he told The Independent, “you now know why it’s so important.”
Question 301 is also important because it poses a novel legal approach to an ongoing issue known as “pre-emption.” In 2012 and 2013, four Colorado cities and a county passed initiatives to temporarily or permanently ban fracking. Broomfield was one of them. But in May 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned local bans on hydraulic fracturing, ruling that state laws that permit drilling trump local laws that prohibit it.
Residents and some legal scholars believe that if 301 passes, the measure will provide Broomfield with authority to regulate certain aspects of oil and gas development, since Colorado is a “home rule” state. Dan Leftwich, a lawyer who founded MindDrive Legal Services and who has consulted with communities about legal strategies, told a group of Broomfield residents that any suggestion that state law always trumped local law was “a fiction. It’s a court-made fiction.”
The industry disagrees. Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, calls the Broomfield measure “a clear attempt to overrun the state’s legal authority,” adding that it “ignores the collaborative progress Broomfield leaders have made over the past year developing a plan for future energy development within the community.” He said that pro-301 efforts are “led by a divisive group of anti-oil and gas activists who will only be happy with an outright ban of one of Colorado’s most critical industries.”
Question 301 sounds simple. It says Broomfield “shall condition oil and gas development permits to require oil and gas development to only occur in a manner that does not adversely impact the health, safety, and welfare of Broomfield’s residents in their workplaces, their homes, their schools, and public parks in order to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare and to safeguard the environment and wildlife resources.”
This language is similar to the recent Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which affirmed that state law requires such a review. That case arose when a group of Colorado teenagers proposed that the COGCC decline to issue oil and gas drilling permits without third-party confirmation that such drilling would not adversely affect human health or the environment. The case is now pending acceptance or rejection of an appeal made by state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to the Colorado Supreme Court.
“I ♥ Fracking”
After Question 301 made the ballot in Broomfield, the oil and gas industry launched its now-familiar money-fueled asymmetrical political warfare, outspending its opponents about 50 to 1 in the most recent round of reported spending. Industry dollars are supporting a ubiquitous media blitz, with “I ♥ Fracking” billboards along interstates and pro-industry television and radio ads. The most recent financial reports show that between Sept. 25th and their first filing on Oct. 17, oil and gas organizations donated more than $340,000 to defeat 301. The final expenditure reports are due Nov. 3, which is the Friday before elections, and will be posted on the CCOB website. In most political fights, last-minute expenditures ramp up considerably.
This industry money is fueling standard-issue red meat television ads on Monday Night Football and elsewhere, featuring former Gov. Bill Owens warning that, “National outside groups are trying to turn Broomfield into a political battleground over oil and gas development — again.” In the ad, Owens warns that, “if  passes, expensive lawsuits are coming.” It is unclear whether Owens was paid for his participation in the ad; he did not respond to The Colorado Independent’s requests for comment.
Owens, who lives in Denver, was the former head of the Colorado Petroleum Institute. The “paid for” ad language is from “Vote No on 301,” a group registered in Broomfield that has been funded entirely by industry money as of this publication. Including nearly $140,000 in “in kind” donations from the Colorado Petroleum Council, Vote No On 301 has received its reported $340,000 from just four groups: the petroleum council, plus the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, Vital for Colorado and Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence. (Combined, the latter three groups received $5.8 million from Noble Energy in 2016.) Not a single donation came from an individual donor. A number of groups organizing around pro-oil and gas issues have the same “registered agent,” Katie and/or Katherine Kennedy, who is listed as the registered agent in nearly 60 conservative groups, including Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy. Kennedy also works for a Strategic Compliance, LLC, which received $4,800 from the issue committee in 2017 alone for “consultant and professional services.”
Notably, Kennedy is the “registered agent” for five other local groups spreading money into other local elections where oil and gas development is or will be an issue, including Aurora for a Better Economy, Thornton for a Better Economy, Broomfield for a Better Economy, Fort Lupton for a Better Economy, and Greeley for a Better Economy. The Greeley Tribune reported that the Greeley group has poured $50,000 into the local elections, and noted that both CRED and Kennedy were both linked to the group.
Kennedy did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Independent.
Expenditures for “Vote No on 301” include $20,000 for “Blitz Canvassing” on Oct. 9 and Ascent Media for “tv advertising” on the same day. In addition, big money has flowed from industry-supported groups to law firms such as Brownstein Hyatt Harbor Schreck, and Hogan Lovells. Hogan Lovells received $215,000 from Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence. The same group gave more than $20,000 to Brownstein Hyatt Harbor Schreck.
Opponents of 301 argue, without proof, that Big Green money is behind the initiative. One flier put out by “No On 301, Don’t Let Them Divide Broomfield,” states that Question 301 was “organized by an anti-fracking group called the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, or LOGIC.” The flier goes on to say that LOGIC was formed by people who worked with or for Clean Water Action, “a national anti-oil and gas group based in Washington, D.C. with a long history of political activism.”
LOGIC, a non-profit organization whose executive director Sara Loflin previously worked for Clean Water Action as its Colorado state director, describes its mission “is to unite Coloradans living near current and proposed oil and gas operations and other concerned citizens to pass new energy development policies that prioritize public health and safety and environmental protection.” Asked about the accusations of inside money and influence from “outside” environmental groups, Loflin said that a significant portion — campaign finance reports show nearly 60 percent — of the 301 support has been in in-kind contributions from Broomfield residents. The rest came from individual donations of $100 or less. She also said that, aside from paying two canvassers a total of $516 in late September, the signature gathering effort to put Question 301 on the ballot was almost entirely citizen driven. “I don’t see how that in any way compares to the closing in on half a million dollars, if not more, that’s coming in for the `no’ campaign,” Loflin said. “And that’s all coming from oil and gas.”
The “No” campaign’s declared war chest and spending far eclipses those of the main citizen-backed group in support of 301, Broomfield Health and Safety First. This group raised just over $7,000, more than $4,000 of which came in the form of in-kind contributions. The group raked in just $2,825 in monetary donations, from 66 individual donors all giving $100 or less.
“Vote No on 301” spokesman Don Beasley did not respond to The Colorado Independent’s request for comment on his group’s allegations of influence from national environmental groups. An op-ed on ColoradoPolitics.com claims that evidence comes in the form of a “paper trail,” because the campaign address for one “Yes” campaign — Citizens for a Safe and Healthy Broomfield — is the same as that for the Sierra Club. Campaign finance reports, however, show that the issue committee had not received any contributions or made any expenditures at all as of Oct. 17.
Digging for dirt
What exactly does that No on 301 money buy? Broomfield Councilman Kreeger suspects at least some of it went into paying a private investigator to delve into his personal life.
On June 28, a man later identified as Greg Sexton came to the City and County offices (Broomfield is a city and a county, as is Denver), asking for information about Kreeger. According to Kreeger, a clerk had become concerned when Sexton showed an FBI badge while retrieving public documents about Kreeger, including his voting records and divorce proceedings. The clerk alerted her boss, who alerted Kreeger. Kreeger then called the Broomfield police and asked them to look into it.
Police reported back to Kreeger that they had identified the private investigator who had been in the county offices after watching security camera footage and speaking to the clerks. Police called Sexton, who works for Beacon Investigative Services in Colorado Springs and is identified on their website as a former FBI special agent. According to Kreeger, Sexton confirmed to Broomfield police that he had indeed shown his badge, but declined to say who had hired him.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Broomfield Police Department Deputy Chief James Pfankuch confirmed that most of that story was accurate. However, Pfankuch said he was convinced that Sexton was merely trying to reassure the clerk that he was not a stalker by offering to show his FBI badge, and Sexton did not improperly try to use his FBI credentials to intimidate or coerce the clerks, since all the information he sought was available to any citizen. “To me, this is a nothing story,” says Pfankuch.
Sexton declined to comment.
Absent Sexton’s help, there is no obvious way to determine who paid him to dig into Kreeger’s background. Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy (CRED), said that the issue committee was neither aware of nor involved in the hiring Sexton’s hiring. Scott Prestidge, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, sent The Independent an official statement on 301 but refused to answer any specific questions relating to these incidents.
Kreeger remains convinced that the records sleuth was connected to the industry. Nothing else made sense, he said. The court documents pertained to his divorce, which clearly his ex-wife didn’t need because she had them. “I’m sure the P.I. was looking for some horrid things from the divorce, but there’s nothing like that,” Kreeger said. “Would I bet my life it was somebody friendly to the industry?” he asks. “Not quite, but almost.”
The case of the curious P.I. was preceded by another sequence of events targeting Kreeger.
On May 10, a Broomfield resident named Gale Cramer made a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request for copies of email correspondence between Councilman Kreeger and a local man who had previously sent email blasts to dozens of people advocating the use of violence to stop oil and gas development. (The CORA request copied the Broomfield Enterprise, which ran a story on the emails on June 23.)
Cramer, contacted by The Colorado Independent, says he filed the request because he had been hearing rumors about Kreeger’s correspondence with an agitator. Upon receipt of the emails, Cramer said, he took them to his neighbor, Tom Cave. Cave is a frequent speaker at Broomfield city council meetings and member of the pro-industry group, Front Range Energy Alliance.
The Kreeger emails also were obtained by the industry-backed Western Wire, a pro-oil and gas website sponsored by the Western Energy Alliance. Western Wire then published several articles involving Kreeger. In the first, dated May 26, Western Wire insinuated that Kreeger was supportive of the author of the emails, who in another venue had advocated “a sniper shooting one of the [oil field] workers.” According to the article, even after the man’s “call for violence was published in a letter to the editor,…Kreeger wrote: `I applaud your energy and your desire to fight for what’s right.’” The Western Wire articles were referenced by political opponents of Kreeger in open council sessions, according to the Broomfield Enterprise’s later story on the matter.
In an interview with The Independent, Kreeger said he had never met the author of the emails, but had responded to his emails about other subjects courteously, as he tries to do with every email – and before he knew about the violent comments. In fact, the emails show that Kreeger had written to the man later and told him to stop his violent rhetoric. “It’s ridiculous to suggest I supported his views,” Kreeger told The Independent. “It’s utterly disgraceful.”
These efforts aimed at Kreeger and his allies didn’t stop there. On June 2, a man named Nicholas Zanetti made another slew of CORA requests for Kreeger’s emails that included his correspondence with a list of 18 people who have been variously involved in opposition to residential oil and gas development. These people include a lawyer representing Broomfield residents, two other lawyers involved in crafting Front Range communities’ responses to oil and gas issues (including the aforementioned Dan Leftwich), and a number of local residents involved in researching ways to enhance local powers to restrict oil and gas development.
Zanetti is an employee of the Washington-D.C.- based political research group, Definers Public Affairs, an arm of “America Rising,” which the Wall Street Journal called “the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party.” Definers president Joe Pounder was named by GQ magazine as “one of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C. for his ability to influence the national news cycle.” The National Review described him as “a master of opposition research.”
In June 2016, Raise the Bar – Protect our Constitution,” the industry-supported initiative that successfully made it more difficult for some statewide citizen initiatives to get on the ballot, reporting paying the Definers $500 for video production, according to reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State.
On the company’s website, Zanetti is described as an employee who “conducts research and war room services for Definers clients,” and as a former “Deputy War Room Director at America Rising LLC.”
Repeated calls and emails to the Definers headquarters have gone unanswered — in fact, the phone just rings repeatedly, as the office apparently has no voicemail set up. Attempts to reach Zanetti through his LinkedIn account and Facebook page also garnered no response. Crummy, the CRED spokeswoman, also said that the issue committee was neither aware of or involved in the hiring of Zanetti.
Scary fliers in Doomfield
Across Broomfield, pro-industry fliers are showing up in mailboxes and doorsteps with fear-mongering denunciations of opponents’ motives and provenance. In one glossy flier put out by an unnamed group of “No on 301” supporters, there’s a picture of blue-green agar floating in a small glass bowl, with an eye-dropper hovering above it. The first page of the flier reads: “Question 301 is a political petrie dish…It starts out looking clean and nice.” On the second page, a hand wrapped in a blue surgical glove holds a grotesque petri dish full of mold spores and the following denunciation: “But outside extreme activists are experimenting with our community.”
Other “No on 301” efforts have come to be accepted as standard issue hard-ball politics, but still require substantial sums of money and sophisticated strategies. Gary Basher, an accountant who lives in Broomfield’s Anthem Highlands neighborhood, told The Colorado Independent that he recently agreed to take a phone survey about 301 after receiving multiple calls. The solicitor, he said, used classic “focus group” tactics to hone messaging, and was clearly opposed to 301. The next day, a canvasser came to the door while Basher was at work. The canvasser spoke to Basher’s wife and asked for him by name, saying that somebody had spoken to him the day before. “It’s like a steamroller,” Basher said of the industry push to drill. “It’s just so unfortunate.”
Other glossy fliers warn that “out of town environmentalists are back,” pushing their “anti-energy agenda,” disparaging Broomfield locals from the Anthem or Wildgrass neighborhoods for wanting to keep oil and gas companies from turning their community into, as one resident called it, “Doomfield.”
Such accusations of “big-enviro” influence don’t sit well with some longtime Broomfield residents who have struggled to raise money and use volunteers to go door-to-door. “It’s amazing the gall they have,” said Jean Lim, one of the Broomfield residents who has been involved in the Yes on 301 campaign. The group hand-prints post cards without postage, and hopes their supporters will supply the stamps. “Where do they get off calling us ‘outside activists?’”
Searching for new tactics
Broomfield is one of many Front Range communities struggling with an onslaught of proposals for “residential development” of large oil and gas industrial facilities near schools, playgrounds, and homes. It’s a tough fight in Colorado, where state laws effectively written by industry lawyers and supported by lavish donations to state politicians overwhelmingly favor oil and gas extraction. Despite assurances from Gov. John Hickenlooper that Colorado has the “strongest regulatory approaches in the country” regarding oil and gas development, many citizens contend that those regulations are insufficient to respond to the rush of drilling that has come closer and closer to burgeoning communities.
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Broomfield has been fighting over a proposal by Extraction Oil and Gas to drill a shifting number of proposed wells, which has been as high as 141, scattered around a shifting number of well pads, and now sits at 84 after last week’s MOU was approved. Citizens have been organizing and attending community meetings in record numbers, and have tried to coax council to pass a six-month moratorium (which failed), as well as organizing a failed recall election against Mayor Pro Tem Greg Stokes for allegedly failing to reveal his financial investments in oil and gas projects.
The Broomfield fight isn’t surprising to anybody who has been watching Colorado politics. The industry has signaled its willingness to spend lavishly to get its way in the state. In September 2015, part of its playbook was leaked to The Colorado Independent in the form of a transcript of a speech given at the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission by Mark Truax, who runs a public relations firm PAC/WEST Communications, Truax is also the Director of Operations and Coalitions for CRED. Read Truax’s speech here.
In his speech, which was recorded by Greenpeace, Truax correctly noted that Colorado citizens had been successfully coalescing in 2012 and 2013 to combat the rising tide of oil and gas development that threatened to infiltrate their communities the way king tides are flooding Miami streets. He also said the industry hit back hard, with $12 million committed by Anadarko and Noble Energy that helped pay for canvassers to knock on 1.7 million doors, profile 3.9 million voters, and utilize traditional broadcast messaging as well as internet and targeted messages. Truax bragged that their efforts had resulted in “making sure that the right city council members got elected to the city council to stop a potential fracking ban” in Fort Collins. He then bragged that “We then also elected a pro-city council, a pro-energy city council” in Denver. Truax said that their efforts included making sure that each Weld County resident had received 185 “digital impressions” of the industry’s messages.
No wonder VanderKooi was getting ads on her Facebook and Words with Friends games.
Not going away
In his speech, Truax called 2015 “the year of the whack-a-mole,” referring to repeated, ongoing efforts on the part of local communities to find any way they can to say “no” to development that is cropping up, quite literally, in people’s backyards.
But if the industry thought that communities would fold up their tents, it was wrong. The battle just went hyper-local. Boulder County recently passed new regulations that are likely to be challenged by the industry. At an Oct. 14 city council meeting, Lafayette authorized spending up to $500,000 on legal fees to fight proposals coming to town, and at a recent city council candidates’ forum, all 14 candidates vying for four seats stated they would oppose any fracking in the city. Erie passed an odor control ordinance after hundreds of citizens complaints were investigated by the state regulatory agency and none of them were found to be actionable. And Thornton is fighting its lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) regarding the city’s recent ordinance.
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Residents are increasingly turning out in droves to make their displeasure known. At an unusual meeting on Oct. 12 that was requested by Broomfield citizens to directly address the members of the COGCC, Broomfield resident Mackenzie Carignan took her three minutes to plead with the regulatory agency tasked with overseeing the industry.
“We’re not being responsibly governed, and the industry is not being responsibly regulated,” Carnignan said. “Why do we try to write and pass our own laws safeguarding our health and safety? Because nobody is doing it.” Carignan, who works at Oracle and is a mother of three, said that residents like her are suffering, scared, and reactive as they “watch an industry with power and influence bulldoze over residents.”
For Broomfield psychologist VanderKooi, last week’s vote to approve the Extraction Memorandum of Understanding isn’t going to stop her from supporting Question 301, any more than the Words with Friends or Facebook ads will change her views. “If anything, the council vote will make people like me more involved,” she vowed. Plus, she added with a grin, “Advertising doesn’t work very well with me.”
Kelsey Ray contributed additional reporting to this story.
All photographs by Ted Wood/The Story Group.
Header image: Lois VanderKooi, part of a Broomfield community group hoping to pass Question 301, stands in front of the Interchange Pad, the first location Extraction Oil plans to develop. (Ted Wood/The Story Group).