Anti-Fracking Activists Heckle, Badger, Shout Down Local Elected Officials in Lafayette, Colo.
Just one week after local residents concerned about oil and natural gas development in Broomfield articulated their reservations calmly and constructively before a city council meeting, anti-fracking activists heckled and jeered their way through a similar meeting in neighboring Lafayette on Tuesday. The stark contrast in the way the subject was approached and discussed reveals exactly what goes wrong when activists are given loud voice: They stir up controversy, create divisions, provoke conflict – and do all they can to derail good-faith conversations about oil and natural gas development as part of pushing their anti-fossil fuel agenda.
On Tuesday evening, the Lafayette City Council discussed a so-called “climate bill of rights,” which provided for a “right to a healthy climate” that is “violated by the extraction of coal, oil and gas, and disposal of drilling waste,” and it authorized “nonviolent direct action” by prohibiting law enforcement officers from arresting or detaining those attempting to “directly enforce the prohibitions of the law.”
The ordinance as originally written and presented to the council was so extreme that it did not have the confidence of the council for a roll call vote. The council is expected to consider an amended version of the ordinance later this month as discussions about oil and natural gas development in Lafayette continue.
If the “climate bill of rights” ordinance sounds familiar, that’s because it resembles a 2013 ballot initiative that banned oil and natural gas development, including hydraulic fracturing, in Lafayette, which was approved by voters but was later struck down by the courts in a legal battle that cost the city at least $60,000 in legal fees.
Like the 2013 bill, this ordinance is sponsored by a familiar cast of characters, including activist and former candidate for Lafayette City Council Cliff Willmeng, who once seized upon a tragic 500-year flood in northern Colorado to push his anti-oil and natural gas political agenda, and Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which has helped introduce similar bills of rights in other parts of the country – and left local communities with the tab for the legal bills that came with defending the measures in court.
“I’ve been very clear that the clarity of [the language of the ordinance] is very problematic, and some of you have pointed that out. Change the language if you want it to be more clear. Change the language if you want it to be a better representation of Lafayette. This was written for a couple of counties in Pennsylvania. It was not written on behalf of our residents and in our own tone.”
Mayor Berg’s concerns about the ordinance are noteworthy considering how she had voted for the 2013 version banning oil and natural gas development within city limits. At the time, she said the measure was “a firm message to the oil and gas industry that people are not going to just stand back and wait for change from a regulatory standpoint.” A few months later, the Lafayette City Council passed a resolution discouraging voters from supporting the initiative.
While the councilors were debating the ordinance on Tuesday, they were repeatedly taunted and shouted down by anti-fracking activists in attendance, forcing Mayor Berg to say (3:22):
“Excuse me? Excuse me. It’s our time, not yours. And I need you to be respectful of that. … We are here, we are public servants … and we are serving in that capacity, and I ask you to respect that this evening.”
After another interruption, she addressed Willmeng directly (3:24):
“Cliff, I appreciate your passion, but, again, I need you to respect the fact that we have the floor, okay?”
Anti-fracking activists heckling and shouting down Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg during her remarks at the city council meeting on Tuesday.
During her remarks, Councilor Alexandra Lynch spoke out against the “inflammatory language” used by activists in their opposition to oil and natural gas development (3:10):
“People are being brave and we’re sharing love. And I don’t think it helps to throw around inflammatory language like ‘we’re going to get arrested for ecoterrorism.’”
She urged “grounding the discussion” in reality to “find consensus and create community” (3:12):
“There’s this polarization where [we are accused of] supporting poisoning people if we have regulations or engage in intelligent and critical analysis around this. People just accuse our Lafayette police of tearing their fingers off of things and shooting them with rubber bullets. This is Lafayette! And yes, as those things unfold all around us, I hold that fear, too. I hold that fear as well. But I need to be true to my chief of police, and … the folks that I know here. And I feel like grounding the discussion in that reality as opposed to inflammatory language is a way for us to find consensus and create community.”
Her remarks were greeted by jeers and heckles (3:10), which prompted shushes and comments like “let her speak!” from others (3:12), and which visibly rattled and upset her, as video footage shows (3:23).
Pragmatism and constructive dialogue in Broomfield
The Lafayette meeting was drastically different from the city council meeting in Broomfield last week, where residents concerned about oil and natural gas development deliberately distanced themselves from the incendiary language used by “ban fracking” activists.
Seeking to clear up the “misconception about what the neighborhood groups are after,” a Broomfield resident clarified that they are “not anti-fracking” and “not anti-energy or oil,” because they “do understand the basic needs of our communities and fossil fuels”:
“I just want to say, there seems to be some misconception about what the neighborhood groups are after. We’re not anti-fracking, and we’re not anti-energy or oil. We continue to say that time each time we come up and I just want to make that point again. We do understand the basic needs of our communities and fossil fuels. We’re not saying no fracking anywhere, and we’re not even saying no fracking in our backyard. We have said time and again our serious concerns about health and safety, and we’re saying we need to understand how this project will go forward in the most safe way for residents, and that’s all we’re looking for.”
By contrast, CELDF’s founder Thomas Linzey once described the potential ramifications of his group’s ordinances this way:
“And if a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.”
Colorado’s business community: the ordinance is “unconstitutional,” “plainly illegal”
Even though the ordinance appears to target oil and natural gas development specifically, its potential downsides would spill over to virtually all other industries, prompting harsh criticism by a broad coalition of business and agricultural groups, which have called it “overly broad,” “unconstitutional,” and “plainly illegal.”
“It shoots far and misses wide,” a spokesperson for the Colorado Competitive Council, an affiliate of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said at a Lafayette city council meeting in January. “It sends a negative message not just to businesses in Lafayette but across the Front Range. It screams that Colorado is not a good place to do business or live.”
At the same meeting, a Colorado Farm Bureau representative said, “I cannot imagine that you as a council are willing to pass a bill that limits the constitutional rights of citizens.”
The ordinance is “of great concern to the entire business community,” explained Colorado Oil and Gas Association chief Dan Haley:
“While this measure is supposedly targeted at oil and gas, it is going to affect anyone doing business in Lafayette. Any ordinance that ties the hands of our police officers and allows citizens to disrupt the operations of a business they simply don’t like is of great concern to the entire business community. …
“This ordinance is so extreme, even the city’s own attorney says [it’s] illegal and unenforceable. City council should reject the measure and have a real conversation that allows us to address any issues they have in a meaningful way.”