Backers of oil and gas drilling setbacks in Colorado lost at the ballot box, but are looking to a new blue statehouse

A new Democratic statehouse plus a new Democratic governor plus a new Democratic attorney general could change the fracking equation

The 15-well site Woolley Becky Sosa development on County Line Road, operated by Crestone Peak Resourced. The drilling is in Weld County but the houses are in Boulder County. (Photo by Adam Stielstra.)
A drill site in Weld County across the county line from houses in Boulder County. (Photo by Adam Stielstra)

The defeat of Proposition 112, Colorado’s oil and gas drilling setback measure, followed a national trend. Voters in Arizona and Washington, like those in Colorado, turned down measures that would have curbed fossil fuel development.   

The defeats “underscore the difficulty of tackling a global problem like climate change at the state and local level, where huge sums of money poured in,” The Washington Post wrote in its post-election analysis Wednesday.

But that doesn’t mean pro-renewable energy, anti-fracking forces are giving up in Colorado.

Grassroots activists are “going to keep fighting,” said Russell Mendell, a spokesperson for Colorado Rising, which backed Prop. 112.

“We are going to hold our elected leaders accountable, and do all we can to protect Colorado communities from the dangers of fracking,” said Mendell, who points out that although the measure failed, at least 825,000 voters across the state supported it. With 100 percent of counties reporting, the unofficial vote count Wednesday was 907,678 votes in support of the measure and 1,172,171 opposed. 

The measure would have expanded on existing oil and gas drilling setbacks from 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from “high occupancy” buildings to a mandatory 2,500 feet.

Colorado Rising took in $1.3 million from small donations and national environmental organizations such as 350.org and Food and Water Action Fund.

That amount was dwarfed by anti-112 Protect Colorado, an oil-and-gas-backed issue committee, which raised $41 million in contributions and blanketed the airwaves with anti-Prop. 122 messages, saying the measure would ban oil and gas development and cause the state to lose hundreds of thousands jobs.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of Colorado Oil and Gas Association, called Tuesday’s vote a “good night for Colorado’s economy and working families.”

“[Prop. 112] is not how we do business here in Colorado,” Haley said Tuesday. “What we do is sit down at the table and hash out our differences and come up with a plan together.”

Protect Colorado  also supported a Prop. 112 companion measure, Amendment 74, which would have allowed property owners to sue the state if regulations — like mandatory setbacks for fracking — devalued their holdings. Amendment 74 was one of the few big-oil-backed measures nationwide that failed Tuesday.

The Denver Business Journal reported that Tuesday night’s defeat of 112 did not assuage oil and gas industry analysts who are wary of Colorado’s unpredictability.

“That’s a positive for the industry, but aside from that there’s an overhang of ‘well, it didn’t pass this time, but what other things could happen?’”  one analyst told the DBJ.

The Big Blue Factor

One thing is the legislature. With Democrats taking control of the Senate, a clear path to the governor’s desk has opened for legislation regulating the industry. In recent sessions, the Democratic House had passed multiple bills along those lines only to see them die in the Senate.

Among those bills were: a law that would have required state regulators to consider public health and safety when issuing drilling permits; increasing the mandatory setback to 1,000 feet from school buildings to school property boundaries; requiring state regulators to give local governments maps of natural gas flowlines.

But there are no guarantees, said Colorado Rep.  Mike Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette.

Foote, who will be leaving the legislature by the end of the year, said that it is still “far too early to tell” whether Democrats will use their newly won majorities to pursue tighter oil and gas regulations.

He and others said local governments need a much bigger seat at the table.

“Local control should be our next big focus,” said Foote. “I can’t tell you what the specific proposals will be, but it’s clear that local governments will need a meaningful say in what happens with oil and gas development in their backyards.”

KC Becker, the House majority leader, said the fight over Prop. 112 should serve as a “wake up call to oil and gas,” and that it should encourage the industry “to come to the table to discuss the effects of drilling on local communities.”

“We need to sit down with activists and operators to discuss local health and safety as well as water and air quality,” said Becker. “Local municipalities should be given some measure of control over oil and gas drilling.”

Becker also stressed the importance of creating a plan to deal with orphan gas wells that can lead to explosions such as the one in Firestone if not properly managed.

Governor-elect Jared Polis has pushed for greater setbacks in the past, but he sided with anti-Prop. 112 forces in this election. Still, Foote is optimistic. Polis, he said, has spoken about local control of oil and gas development in ways that outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper “never has.”

Anti-fracking forces also appear to have an ally in the state’s newly-elected attorney general, Democrat Phil Weiser, a former University of Colorado Law School dean and former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration. Weiser, who becomes the first Democratic attorney general in Colorado in more than a decade, has said he entered the race specifically to act as a check on President Donald Trump’s policies.

Asked by The Colorado Independent Tuesday night at the Democratic victory party if there were any ongoing cases he might drop as attorney general, Weiser said, “I haven’t been asked that question, so I don’t have an answer.” Pressed further, he said, “The one I’d have to look at is the Martinez case right now.”

The Martinez case, which argues the state must weigh public health and safety as a condition before issuing permits for oil and gas drilling, is currently in the hands of the Colorado Supreme Court. Sitting state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman allied with the industry in the case, pursuing an appeal of a lower court’s decision. “That is a problem,” Weiser said. “The problem is it’s already been argued and submitted … I don’t know if it will still be outstanding by the time I take office, then I’ll have to consult with the oil and gas commission.”

Still, he said, “that case is an example of what an attorney general who is not focused on the rule of law, not focused on the people, can do. That case never should have happened. And I won’t let cases like that happen.”

While fewer than  30,000 people — less than 1 percent — of Colorado’s 3-million person workforce are directly employed in the oil and gas sector, the economic effects of Prop. 112 would have hit some regions hard. In counties such as oil-rich Weld County, nearly 12 percent of the workforce is directly employed in oil and gas drilling.

The unevenly distributed votes for and against Prop. 112 reflected regions’ varying reliance on oil and gas for jobs. In Boulder County, for example, the measure passed with 70 percent support. It overwhelmingly failed in Weld County, with 76 percent against. The measure narrowly passed in Broomfield County and Denver County, with 54 percent  and 56 percent support respectively.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports in 2018 that oil and gas accounts for nearly 5 percent of the state’s GDP—  up from a low of 3 percent in 2016, but below a 7 percent high in 2014.

While Colorado Rising took pains not to frame the election debate on Prop. 112 as a fight over climate change, but rather health and safety, volunteers and staff from 350 Colorado, a climate change activist group, played a critical role in gathering signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

350 Colorado Executive Director Micah Parkin called Prop. 112 “a modest measure aimed at health and safety,” but said that the global debate on fossil fuel contributions to climate change “certainly pertains to fracking here as well.”

She went on to say that the state needs to be prepared for a transition to renewable energy (something Polis is also pushing), “and one of the things that means is that it’s important for the Colorado lawmakers to transition workers out of fossil fuels.”

Colorado is the nation’s seventh-largest producer of oil and the sixth-largest producer of natural gas, producing over 1.7 million cubic feet, while the state claims the third-largest gas reserves. Natural gas consists of at least 95 percent  methane — a gas with about 30 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide in the short-term.

Colorado became the first state in 2014 to limit methane emissions from oil and gas. While President Trump has eased methane regulations nationwide, a Colorado Air Pollution Control Division report found that Colorado’s methane leaks from oil and gas drilling decreased by 52 percent, from more than 36,000 in 2015 to about 17,250 in 2017.

With the decline of coal, however, oil and natural gas are now the two top contributors to U.S. carbon emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Corey Hutchins contributed to this story

Taran Volckhausen is a freelance journalist who primarily writes about the environment, politics, and drug policy. His work has appeared on National Geographic, Christian Science Monitor, The Intercept, Mongabay, among others. He is also a former editor at Colombia Reports. Twitter: @tvolckhausen

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article, nuanced and comprehensive! I have great hopes for moving forward with the New Democratic leadership in Colorado, forging a path to local control.

  2. We are conservative Christians in support of 112. It’s a shame how big money pushed against the will of the people on this issue. If these guys could have gotten out of Boulder and liberal strong holds more, they would have had more votes. I was on the volunteer special mailing list for this group and every single dang event and signatory location, every drive, every action, always in Boulder or some liberal venue, and nothing for regular people in the conservative suburbs areas, even here in Adams county which voted liberal. This polarization based on politics is the reason these actions are so easily defeated by large corporations. Take heart though, when these people who were so easily swayed to vote no on 112 get a big old oil pump off gassing dangerous fumes injuring themselves, their children, and pets, immediately behind their houses, they’ll sing a different tune next time. The activists will however, have to get over their personal biases and be willing to reach out to conservative areas to make it happen next time.

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