Looking For Supporters of Initiative 97 in Colorado? You’ll Hear Mostly Crickets
With less than a week left before the 98,462-signature deadline for ballot Initiative 97 — the anti-fracking measure that would increase setbacks throughout Colorado five-fold and severely curtail oil and gas development in the state — activists have failed to drum up any significant political support for their campaign. Bipartisan voices are speaking out against Initiative 97’s 2,500-foot setback, while others most sympathetic to anti-fracking initiatives, like gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis, have largely avoided weighing in on the issue.
Advocating for increased setbacks in Colorado is nothing new. It seems every other year, “Keep It In the Ground” activists push for similar measures, and every time they fail to get them on the ballot. We saw this play out in 2012, 2014, and again in 2016.
Colorado’s Democratic Governor, John Hickenlooper, weighed in during a recent press conference and expressed concern for how a 2,500-foot setback would impact the state’s retirees and mineral rights owners.
“It would certainly have a huge impact on the oil and gas industry in the State of Colorado… So, it would be a serious issue. I think legitimately there will be discussions about whether that is a taking, whether the state . . . creating an initiative like that is taking the private property of people that own those leases. As you guys all know, many of the owners of oil and gas lease holds are retired couples, retired families, people who’ve retired. This is part of their retirement.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission released its Initiative 97 impact assessment earlier this month, finding that more than 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado would be off-limits to any new oil and gas development should it pass, including 78 percent of all Weld County surface land — where the vast majority of all such operations take place in the state. That includes the next three top production counties as well — Garfield, La Plata, and Rio Blanco counties — where more than 99.8 percent of non-federal county land would be taken off the table. So effectively, the ballot measure is a de facto shutdown of oil and gas development in the state, which is the measure’s true intent.
And as Hickenlooper implied, there are huge ramifications to suddenly withdrawing such wide swathes of land from development. The Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners (CAMRO) commissioned its own study that found that increasing setbacks to 2,500 feet would strand $180 billion worth of resources, costing mineral rights owners as much at $26 billion.
Former Obama administration Interior Secretary and former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar recently expressed his disapproval of Initiative 97 based on legal grounds:
“Number one, if it [Initiative 97] were to pass it’s fundamentally, in my view, unconstitutional. … It’s a regulatory taking that I don’t think anybody wants to bite into, so I don’t think it’s going to happen… We are a state that is a diverse state that energy and our energy future is critical to our state and that we have to come up with practical solutions that aren’t way off the map in the way the 2,500 foot setback proposal is.”
Another recent study by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable showed that Initiative 97 would cost Coloradans more than 100,000 jobs by 2030 and reduce state and local tax revenue between $825 million and $1.1 billion during that same timeframe, including money for education, law enforcement, and other critical infrastructure.
There’s a bit of a divide among the Democratic party and its members. When asked about setbacks in a roundtable earlier this year, none of the then-democratic gubernatorial candidates said they supported it. Conservation Colorado, one of the most prominent environmental groups in the state also declined to endorse the measure. But while the candidates have all come out against Initiative 97, Colorado’s Democratic Party decided to endorse the measure. That prompted Dan Haley, President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, to say this about the move:
“Democrats have long prided themselves on supposedly being the party of working people, yet in Colorado they’ve endorsed an initiative that would put tens of thousands of working families across the state out of work. Our industry works hard every day to protect the environment, to protect our workforce, and to protect the communities in which we operate. We’re not perfect but I can guarantee that we’re better today than we were last year, let alone five years ago. This is what happens when you put politics ahead of people.”
So where does Polis stand on the issue? We’re not completely sure, and that’s probably by design on his part now that he’s in a general election. Polis bankrolled a similar setback proposal back in 2014 and in the same year also funded an initiative to create an “environmental bill of rights,” which would allow local governments to ban oil and gas development.
At a campaign event back in February, Polis did say he wouldn’t support anti-oil and gas ballot measures, calling them too “rigid.” He pointed to the need for flexibility on the part of landowners who may want to permit drilling closer than the setback would allow.
But as EID mentioned recently, the Polis campaign took issue with being characterized as anti-fracking (despite past policy positions), so it’s a question of words versus actions.
While we won’t know for sure whether or not activists will get enough valid signatures to pass the threshold that would put Initiative 97 on the November ballot until Aug. 6, if public support is any indication, their success is in doubt.