Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in The Colorado Statesman:
An anti-fracking group last month submitted 11 potential ballot initiatives to the Colorado Legislative Council — the first step in possibly landing the proposed constitutional amendments on what could be a crowded 2016 ballot during a high-turnout presidential election year. But the oil and gas industry and some state lawmakers are already lining up to combat the measures.
Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development, a self-described grassroots, citizen-activist group, submitted the 11 questions on Dec. 23, and Legislative Council held a hearing on the wording of the questions on Tuesday. Once any of the initiatives are certified by the secretary of state, CREED will have until Aug. 8 to gather 98,492 valid signatures of registered Colorado voters in order to .
“If the state will not adequately protect Coloradans and communities, then we, the people of Colorado, must do it, and that requires a change to Colorado law,” said CREED Executive Director Tricia Olson. “Our beautiful state should not be overwhelmed by wells, pads, and other industrial oil and gas operations plunked down next to neighborhoods and schools.”
The 11 questions cover topics ranging from increasing setbacks for drilling operations away from homes and schools to allowing for more local government control over the state-regulated industry to an outright ban on the drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free up more oil and gas. Industry officials say the process is safe, while opponents argue it contaminates air and water supplies.
“Sadly, we have a handful of extremists who don’t understand or care what oil and natural gas does for Colorado’s economy and for American energy independence,” said Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council. “The good news, however, is that the vast majority of Coloradans do understand, and we continue to look forward to working with local communities and policymakers to ensure Colorado remains a leader in energy development.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — the state agency in charge of regulating oil and gas drilling — will hold another hearing on a pair of local control rules on Jan. 25. Those draft rules are the result of recommendations made by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force, which was set up by executive order in 2014 in a compromise with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat, to head off two anti-drilling ballot questions Polis was funding that year.
Polis in the past has criticized the results of the task force, but he has yet to respond to requests for comment from The Colorado Statesman about the latest round of anti-fracking ballot questions.
State Rep. Joseph Salazar, D-Thornton says he doesn’t think increased oil and gas regulation should be handled with constitutional amendments. Nor does he think an outright ban on fracking will fly. But he believes that the Legislature can do more to protect residents from the impacts of drilling.“An outright ban, that’s just not going to work,” Salazar told The Statesman. “I understand that mineral rights owners have property rights, and that’s a taking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be safe about it by studying the effects and implementing good safety measures to ensure that when people want to exercise their mineral rights that they’re not adversely affecting their neighbors.”
State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he’s ready to sponsor his own initiative similar to one he backed in 2014 that would prevent any local government that bans oil and gas production from receiving state tax revenues generated by the industry.
“I pushed pretty hard for us not to cave on that for fear that we’d be going down this same path in 2016 that we were in 2014,” Sonnenberg said, referring to the decision to pull two industry-backed ballot questions as part of the 2014 Hickenlooper-Polis compromise. “Rest assured, I will not be silent on this issue. Whatever I need to do, I will be out front.”
Other lawmakers are focused on what can be done legislatively to promote an industry struggling with steadily declining prices, although any new laws will be tough to pass with Democrats in control of the House and Republicans wielding the gavel in the Senate.
“My idea would be severance tax [breaks] or incentivizing oil and gas drilling, but the other side of the aisle’s not going to like that too much,” state Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, told The Statesman. “The problem is when you have a split Legislature like we do, it’s very difficult to get anything accomplished. It’s like a bad soccer game that ends in a zero-zero tie.”
Bentley says the Colorado Petroleum Council is not yet too intent on drafting ballot measures to counter the CREED questions but instead is focused on the state local-control hearings and the 2016 legislative session that kicks off Jan. 13. The group, she said, is continuing to work with local communities.
“With oil prices the lowest we have seen in over 10 years and forcing job layoffs, we hope to work with the Legislature to defeat any piece of legislation that will deter responsible energy production in Colorado,” Bentley said, adding, “CREED and its supporting groups do not have significant financial backing, if any at all.”
Groups backing the CREED questions tout their grassroots support and what they contend is growing public concern about the impacts of fracking as drilling pushes into more populated areas of the state.
“I am expected to sacrifice my family and my home’s value for a fuel source that will be shipped elsewhere for some investor’s profit,” said Sharon J. Carlisle, president of PROTECT OUR LOVELAND. “Our leaders are failing us, and the ability to run citizen initiatives is there to use when our leaders fail us. CREED’s ballot initiatives represent positive change.”
Bentley says the industry will assess its campaign spending to combat the CREED measures depending on which questions, if any, actually make it on the ballot.
“Just because they filed for 11 does not mean they have the resources nor the support to get all the necessary signatures needed,” Bentley said. “If any of them do get the signatures, industry will assess the situation and put forward the necessary resources. Right now, it’s impossible to predict what that could look like.”