Jared Polis abandons anti-fracking initiatives

A Democratic family feud takes a surprising turn in Colorado.

  • Colorado Congressman Jared Polis faces an angry crowd in Boulder as he explains why he withdrew his support for two anti-fracking ballot initiatives.

    Joshua Zaffos
 

Outside a Boulder library on Aug. 5, Rep. Jared Polis, D, faced an angry mob. "You sold us out!" people shouted, waving signs with slogans like "No friggin fracking" and "SHAME." Celebrity activist and Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox flew in to join locals, demanding to know why, in an eleventh-hour deal with Gov. John Hickenlooper, Polis withdrew support for two ballot initiatives he'd fiercely championed just days before. One would have increased the distance oil and gas wells must be from homes and schools, substantially enlarging "no-frack zones" statewide; the other would have established an "environmental bill of rights," allowing local governments to restrict, or even ban, fracking.

"When we fight this fight in this state, we need to make sure there's a battlefield we can win, OK?" Polis told the crowd, drawing jeers and boos. The "fractivists" thought this year's ballot was that place. Polis seemed to agree – until he didn't.

The standoff exposed a rift between Colorado Democrats that has opened in recent years as drilling creeps ever closer to communities in the urban Front Range. The fractivists worry about the risks hydraulic fracturing poses to human health and property values, and want local control over how and whether drilling occurs in their backyards. But Hickenlooper says local regulations contradict state rules, and that the initiatives would cost Colorado tens of thousands of jobs and billions of tax and investment dollars.

Polis, a multimillionaire tech entrepreneur and philanthropist who represents firmly Democratic Boulder and Longmont, initially stood with the activists. The issue was personal: Last July, drilling started next to his vacation home in Weld County. For months, he resisted pressure from fellow Democrats, including Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, to ditch the ballot initiatives.

The split threatened Democrats in an election year, giving Republicans a fundraising boost while potentially suppressing support from liberals, many of whom are miffed at Hickenlooper's pro-industry attitude. (Last year, the governor told a U.S. Senate committee he once drank fracking fluid to demonstrate its safety.) When Udall also came out against the ballot initiatives, local environmentalists accused him of being out of touch with his base. The first-term senator, who is known for his practical politics, is in a re-election race against Rep. Cory Gardner, the outcome of which could help determine which party controls the Senate. Hickenlooper also faces a re-election challenge.

In other words, the stakes were high. Which might explain why, just hours before petition signatures were due to get the initiatives' on the ballot, Hickenlooper and Polis compromised. Polis, who bankrolled the initiatives, pulled his support, and he and Hickenlooper announced a new commission to recommend fracking rules to the Legislature. The governor agreed to drop a lawsuit against the city of Longmont's voter-approved fracking ban, the energy industry nixed two pro-drilling ballot measures, and the Polis-backed campaign for the anti-fracking initiatives withdrew the petition it submitted to the state. "It's an effort by the governor to take this issue off the table prior to the election, and that's probably a smart move," says Peter Hanson, a political science professor at the University of Denver.

The compromise, supported by national environmental groups as well as energy companies, opens a path to meaningful new policy. But if it fails, local-control advocates will fight, again, for their day at the ballot box.

Colorado Republicans pounced on the Democrats' split this spring. Energy groups and Gardner, a social and fiscal conservative, used the ballot issues against Udall, accusing him of not coming out quickly and forcefully enough against the initiatives. They depicted supporters as radicals: the "Tea Party of the left."

Republicans needed a wedge: Over the last decade, Colorado has shifted from red to blue, with Democrats gaining control of the state's Legislature and congressional delegation. Their pragmatic embrace of the state's natural gas boom has helped, showing moderate and conservative voters they support the jobs and revenues it brings.

But the local control movement has been tricky for the party to navigate. Communities have passed fracking bans and moratoria, despite Hickenlooper's threatened lawsuits. And it isn't just radical environmentalists who are concerned; it's also property owners and soccer moms.

The local-control movement seemed poised to have a disruptive effect this fall. But in the end, Democrats – the politicians, at least – reconciled. Perhaps that's not surprising: With only Polis in their corner, fractivists never gained the influence over Democrats that the Tea Party did over Republicans. Add the opposition of the oil and gas industry, and lack of support from many mainstream environmental groups, and the initiatives turned out to be more bark than bite.

But while fracking foes are generally disappointed, the compromise isn't a clear-cut defeat. Activists forced Hickenlooper to bend, and Polis had to reciprocate. And now, the local-control folks have an official seat at the policymaking table.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, former director of the industry watchdog Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project, will co-chair the new commission, which meets this fall. The Legislature will consider its recommendations next year. Lachelt says it's an "experiment" that will bring everyday citizens together with government and industry leaders to address local concerns, particularly "communities' right to say no (to energy development), an issue most states have completely avoided."

Back at the Boulder library, Polis tried to persuade irate constituents that it will be easier to pass anti-fracking measures in 2016, should the committee's recommendations or the Legislature's response fail to satisfy them. He reminded them that there was a "very dangerous" chance that the competing industry-led initiatives would have passed had they not been shelved in the compromise. Typically, Republicans and their causes fare better during midterm elections, when Democratic turnout usually dips because low-income and young voters are less likely to vote. Polis also noted that the measure establishing a right to a clean environment lacked enough signatures to make the ballot – another reason he may have decided to compromise.

The crowd was unimpressed. After Polis moved inside to a town-hall meeting, Shane Davis, who runs the website Fractivist.org, asserted that future initiatives will be led by grassroots groups, not politicians. Industry leaders, Davis warned, should "put on your best suits," and be ready for 2016.

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