Where are the fracking fights this fall?

Fracktivists look to exercise local control over energy development this November.


Update: The Colorado ballot initiatives failed to get enough signatures to make it on the ballot. Activists have 30 days to appeal the decision by the Colorado Secretary of State.

The long wait for Colorado fractivists appears to be over: Two ballot initiatives that would greatly limit hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas in the state are likely heading before voters this November. The initiatives would mark the first statewide referendum on fracking anywhere in the U.S.

Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development (CREED) and its related committee Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking have backed the two measures. Initiative 75 would allow local governments to regulate oil and gas drilling and even ban fracking. This spring, the state supreme court again rejected local voter-approved and city and county governments’ bans on fracking since they conflict with state law. Initiative 78 would establish an expansive 2,500-foot setback zone for oil and gas activity from any occupied structures, including houses, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. The current setback in Colorado, which has some of the country’s most stringent energy rules, is 500 feet.

Outside of Colorado, California’s Monterey County—the state’s fourth leading oil-producing county—will vote on its own ban against fracking and wastewater ground injection this November. Neighboring counties have already passed similar bans and do not face the legal constraints against local governments raised in Colorado. Andy Hsia-Coron, a spokesperson for the Protect Monterey County campaign, says the measure is partly a preemptive move before fracking takes off in the massive Monterey shale formation, and partly an attempt to rein in “acidizing”—using corrosive chemicals to dissolve rock to open fractures and pores—and toxic wastewater disposal from existing oil and gas development.

In Colorado, the regulatory Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has determined the increased setback would make 90 percent of the state off-limits to drilling and fracking, virtually halting production. While oil and gas drilling have hit a lull with low prices in the past year, drill rigs and wells continue to pop up along Colorado’s Front Range between Denver and Fort Collins, where industry activity has bumped up against neighborhoods and schools and the strongest fracking opposition has taken root.

Fractivists protest the drilling near Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colorado in 2012. Ballot initiative 78 would extend the current setback zone around occupied structures such as schools from 500 feet to 2,500 feet.
Brett Rindt/CC Flickr

“National activist organizations may feel as though this is a good time for them to wage a campaign against oil and natural gas development,” says Randy Hildreth of Energy In Depth, an industry outreach group, “(but) the fact remains that shale development is creating significant benefits and will continue to play an important role in our nation’s energy future.”

The energy industry contributed $31.7 billion to the state economy and supported nearly 103,000 Colorado jobs in 2014, according to a University of Colorado Leeds School of Business report (although critics said the report findings reflected undue industry influence).

Two similar measures slated for the 2014 ballot were withdrawn from consideration at nearly the last minute due to political finagling by state Democrats worried about key elections for governor and a Senate seat. This year, two separate campaigns launched to boost local decision-making and directly limit fracking—without relying on politicians’ support. One campaign to pass a broad state Community Rights Amendment halted in mid-July, though, when organizers announced that their volunteers wouldn't be able to gather enough signatures on petitions to get the measure on the ballot. The Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking campaign turned in the required 98,000 signatures for its two initiatives just before an August 8 deadline, after deploying both volunteer and paid petition circulators. The state has a month to certify signatures before determining if the initiatives will officially make the ballot.

Along the way, the Yes for Health and Safety group fended off industry’s well-funded “Decline to Sign” counter-campaign, including TV commercials and billboards—considered an aggressive move just to keep the measures off the ballot—and even accused industry of “organized harassment” against its petitioners. “Bullies shouldn’t decide our future,” Tricia Olson, the Yes for Health and Safety spokesperson, said in a statement. 

Protect Colorado, the industry-backed group formed to oppose anti-fracking measures, denies those allegations, says spokeperson Karen Crummy. Energy companies have already contributed $13 million to defeat the measures, with more funds likely on the way. 

Assuming the petitions hold up, the initiatives will undoubtedly be a high-profile and expensive campaign issue, making Colorado a potentially critical battleground for the White House, the Senate and fracking.

Whither the initiatives might influence the other political contests is a legitimate question. Since the 2014 fallout, many Democratic voters have split from party politicians, particularly Gov. John Hickenlooper, when it comes to controlling fracking, and they strongly backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, who supports a national fracking ban, during the presidential caucus this spring.

Incumbent Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet’s seat was once considered a toss-up, but he’s now favored to win after a bumbling Republican primary battle. Bennet recently said he understands citizens' concerns over fracking and its health and environmental effects, but he generally supports further refining state rules instead of voting on "one-size-fits-all" ballot measures.

In a recent interview in Colorado, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, “I have long been in favor of states and cities within states making up their own minds whether or not they want to permit fracking.” But petulant Sanders supporters and fractivists have expressed skepticism toward her positions, based on her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State when she helped promote fracking and American drilling know-how abroad. Ultimately, passionate fractivists could turn their backs on Clinton and Bennet and vote for Green Party candidates instead. But that's probably not a large enough constituency to change outcomes, unless the races recapture their earlier competitiveness.

During his own recent Colorado campaign stop, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump also supported state and local control over fracking, saying, "Fracking is something that we need, fracking is something that's here, whether we like it or not. But if a municipality or a state wants to ban fracking, I can understand that." Trump could certainly use the issue to court “Bernie Bros,” disenchanted with Clinton and the Democratic Party’s refusal to include a fracking ban in its recent platform. But Trump has also said he would increase fracking and drilling, and campaign officials have said Harold Hamm, CEO of a major Oklahoma oil and gas company, is the top contender for Energy Secretary in a Trump administration.

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.

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