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COLUMN: Activist Petition Drive Missing One Important Thing: Actual Coloradans

NOTE: this article originally appeared in the Denver Post

A small group of environmental activists made the news last week with a petition against natural gas development in Erie. About 10 people, including the activists and their children, delivered copies of the petition to Encana Corporation’s U.S. headquarters in Denver and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, and made sure TV cameras came along for the ride. The petition included about 21,000 names gathered over the Internet, which sure sounds like a big number. There’s just one problem: almost no one who signed the petition actually lives in Erie.

All told, only about 100 Erie residents lent their name to petition, roughly one half of 1 percent of the town’s population. In fact, hundreds more online signatures came from outside the country — Germany, Spain, Greece and Australia — than from inside the town. Erie’s neighboring communities weren’t persuaded, either, because barely 1,000 names came from the rest of Colorado. So where did all those other names come from?

The top three states were California, New York and Massachusetts, which together accounted for almost 9,000 names. Why so many from outside Colorado? Maybe it’s because Erie Rising, the group that’s trying to scare people in the Front Range suburbs by demonizing the oil and gas industry, called in a Washington-based pressure group called Food & Water Watch to run the campaign.

Erie Rising’s leaders have spent lots of time talking to out-of-state activists and donors lately. They’ve negotiated partnerships with the Environmental Working Group in Washington, Water Defense in New York City, and the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, and endorsements from actor Mark Ruffalo and singer Natalie Merchant.

Good for Erie Rising, you might think. But winning the approval of celebrities and out-of-state activists has come at a price. The remarkably low number of local names on the petition proves Erie Rising has lost credibility where it really counts: in the actual town it claims to represent.

Back in February, the group damaged Erie’s reputation as “a great place to live, work and play” by falsely claiming the town has dangerously high air pollution. Erie town officials were then bullied into supporting a temporary moratorium on new oil and gas wells. But they later discovered the air-pollution claims were made “politically and inaccurately,” and there was no danger, Erie Mayor Joe Wilson recently told The Daily Camera. Today, Wilson says, Erie’s residents are hearing more facts and “we’re seeing them becoming more accepting of oil and gas operations.”

That’s a flat-out rejection of Erie Rising’s attacks against the men, women and families of Colorado’s oil and gas industry. Erie Rising portrays them as outsiders who don’t belong, don’t contribute to the local community and, worst of all, don’t care about children’s health. That’s complete nonsense. The first oil well was developed in this state 150 years ago, and Colorado has been a leading energy producer ever since. More than 40,000 Colorado families get their paychecks directly from the oil and gas industry. Those paychecks total more than $3 billion a year, and the industry generates more than $1 billion in revenue for local and state governments, according to the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

As for children’s health, Erie Rising’s petition targets a planned Encana well site more than five football fields away from an elementary school. The group has made all kinds of alarmist claims to scare parents and their children, but provided no facts to support them. Here are the facts: Encana’s wells were lawfully permitted under one of the nation’s toughest oil and gas regulatory regimes. The setback from the school is hundreds of yards wider than required, and 95 percent of well site emissions must be captured. Even so, the company is taking the further step of drilling and completing the well during summer vacation when school’s out.

Here’s the thing: the men and women who produce Colorado’s oil and gas have families, too. They aren’t outsiders — they live there, work there and send their kids to school there. Which makes you wonder: How many people who signed Erie Rising’s petition do you suppose would even be able to find the town on a map?

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