Millionaire Congressman Has Some Fracking Explaining To Do
“Ban fracking” activist and Gasland director Josh Fox speaks at 2011 press conference in Washington, D.C. alongside Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Photo: Earthworks
Millionaire Boulder Congressman Jared Polis – who is pushing two anti-energy initiatives for the statewide ballot in Colorado this November – is working hard to distance himself from the national “ban fracking” groups campaigning in Colorado today. Rep. Polis has even claimed he’s pro-energy and his ballot measures are actually meant to help Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry.
But in reality, Rep. Polis has a long history of working with “ban fracking” activists to advance their agenda, which calls for shutting down oil and gas development across Colorado and the rest of the nation. In fact, the agenda behind the Rep. Polis measures has been called “radical” by Colorado’s Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez. Even Mark Udall (D) and Cory Gardner (R), who are locked in a heated U.S. Senate race, also agree that the Polis measures are too extreme for Colorado.
So when Rep. Polis says he supports oil and natural gas production in Colorado – and denies he’s pushing an anti-energy agenda – the facts tell a very different story.
The Polis pro-energy claims
Rep. Polis – who has a personal fortune of $68 million or more – has been gathering signatures for two measures on the November ballot. One would increase the minimum setback between oil and gas wells and occupied buildings from the current 500 feet to 2,000 feet. The other measure is an “environmental bill of rights” that would, among other things, give local governments the authority to ban oil and gas development. Yet Rep. Polis insists there is no connection between these measures and the local and statewide campaigns being waged by national activist groups like Food & Water Watch and Water Defense to ban oil and gas development in Colorado.
In a July 16 statement, Rep. Polis said these initiatives won’t harm the oil and gas industry, and even claimed they will “allow our state to continue to benefit from the oil and gas boom that brings jobs and increased energy security.” In June, Rep. Polis said: “I think that like myself most Coloradans support fracking and the all-of-the above approach.”
In May, Rep. Polis claimed “misinformation” had falsely labeled his ballot-initiative campaign as “anti-energy,” when his real goal was “continued growth and development of the energy industry.” Rep. Polis added: “I do not support a statewide ban on fracking. These bans are not in our interests as a state or nation.”
To put more distance between himself and the “ban fracking” activists, Rep. Polis has even mocked their agenda. According to the Denver Post:
“The Democratic congressman doesn’t want to ban all drilling with hydraulic fracturing, he insisted — and even compared those who do to fringe groups seeking to outlaw fluoride in water.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, is an essential technology for developing more than 90 percent of oil and gas wells in Colorado and across the nation. Without hydraulic fracturing – which lasts just a few days per well – the vast majority of oil and gas wells would never be drilled in the first place. That’s because without this technology, these wells could not produce meaningful amounts of energy. In other words, a ban on hydraulic fracturing is really “a defacto ban on drilling” for oil and gas, according to Matt Lepore, Colorado’s top oil and gas regulator.
Clearly, Rep. Polis wants the public to believe he’s got nothing to do with a “ban fracking” campaign that would shut down oil and gas drilling in Colorado. But a deeper examination of his record shows Rep. Polis has been promoting the agenda of the “ban fracking” movement for years.
The Polis anti-energy reality
Hollywood actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo speaks at a press conference with Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox, director of Gasland.(Feb. 17. 2011) Photo: NRDC
This is what Rep. Polis said about those “fringe groups” who want to ban hydraulic fracturing during a Washington, D.C. press conference in 2011 [emphasis added]:
“We’re willing to fight hard on our end here in Congress, but change happens when our citizens demand action. Josh Fox and Mark Ruffalo have done an amazing job bridging the gap between government policy and grassroots support and built up an army of believers devoted to the cause.”
So who is Rep. Polis talking about? Fox, the director of the 2010 “ban fracking” movie Gasland, is one of the “rock stars of the anti-drilling movement,” according to E&E News. In fact, the signature scene in Gasland – the flaming faucet – was actually filmed in Northern Colorado. But two years before the movie’s release, Colorado state regulators investigated the case and determined oil and gas development wasn’t the cause. Instead, there was flammable methane in the water because the home’s water well “penetrated at least four different coal beds” containing methane, the regulators concluded. So the “flaming faucet” scene was a sham, but Fox built his movie around it anyway. This is something Rep. Polis knew – or should have known – when he endorsed Fox’s “amazing” work during a press conference in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
As for Ruffalo, he’s a Hollywood actor who started the anti-fracking group Water Defense. Ruffalo has described the oil and gas industry – which supports more than 110,000 jobs in Colorado – as “a vampire squid sucking the life out of us.” He has even been called “the natural gas industry’s worst nightmare” by Rolling Stone magazine.
Ruffalo and Fox also serve together on the advisory board of Americans Against Fracking, which is a coalition of fringe environmental groups led by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch “dedicated to banning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and drilling associated with fracking for oil and natural gas in the United States.”
So what about “the cause” Rep. Polis talked about at the press conference? Fox and Ruffalo traveled to Washington that day to demand nothing less than an immediate halt to the use of hydraulic fracturing nationwide, and therefore, an effective oil and gas development ban across the country. As Fox declared on the Gasland Facebook page, shown below: “Nationwide moratorium on fracking NOW!”
The same day Rep. Polis stood with Fox and Ruffalo, the Gasland director even sent an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and the news media demanding the federal government impose “an immediate moratorium on drilling, permitting and fracking.”
But there was a catch – the federal government doesn’t have the legal authority to impose a moratorium or a permanent ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing. While the federal government is very much involved in the regulation of the overall oil and gas development process, the energy and environmental laws that govern the oil and gas industry have put state-level regulators primarily in charge of hydraulic fracturing since it was pioneered in the late 1940s.
For roughly 20 years, anti-industry activists have been pushing to federalize the hydraulic fracturing permitting process so they can effectively shut it down. But this idea has been strongly opposed by state-level regulators and rejected by senior environmental officials in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
For this reason, Fox, Ruffalo and “ban fracking” groups like Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch have supported a bill in Congress called the FRAC Act, which would force the federal government into the hydraulic fracturing permitting process. Usually, groups like Food & Water Watch will not support anything short of a total ban on hydraulic fracturing, because they believe it’s “inherently unsafe … [and] can’t be made safe through government oversight or regulations.” But they make an exception for the FRAC Act, because even though the bill doesn’t directly call for a ban on hydraulic fracturing, it gives the federal government the authority to shut it down (either directly or by making it impossible to issue permits, which is what Fox, Ruffalo and other “ban fracking” activists have accomplished in New York for the past six years).
The FRAC Act is what Rep. Polis promised to “fight hard” for during his press conference with Fox and Ruffalo, making him one of the few “allies” of the anti-fracking activists in Washington, according Rolling Stone magazine. Then, as now, Rep. Polis cloaked his endorsement of the anti-energy agenda in pro-energy rhetoric:
“Supporting natural gas shouldn’t mean sacrificing our health or environment. I’m excited that we will reintroduce the FRAC Act soon…”
Less than a month later, Rep. Polis announced the reintroduction of the FRAC Act, which he first supported in 2009 as a freshman Congressman. In a press release, Rep. Polis claimed a “drumbeat of investigations and personal tragedies” tied to hydraulic fracturing, which drew high praise from the “ban fracking” group Food & Water Watch.
“Polis got it right,” Food & Water Watch spokesman Rich Bindell said in a statement headlined “Congress Relaunches Frack Attack.” Bindell also laid out the two-step strategy of “ban fracking” groups: Pass the FRAC Act so the federal government has the power to shut down oil and gas development across the country, and then lobby the federal government to use that power to shut down oil and gas development across the country.
“Food & Water Watch supports a national ban on fracking,” Bindell said. “But, the FRAC Act is necessary measure that offers a bare minimum of protection until we can ban the process altogether.”
Bringing East Coast politics to Colorado
So what have Fox, Ruffalo and Food & Water Watch been doing since Rep. Polis embraced their “cause” in 2011?
Fox has made Colorado a focal point in his crusade to ban oil and gas development nationwide. For example, Colorado was one of the first stops on Fox’s tour to launch Gasland Part II, a sequel with even bigger and more misleading pyrotechnics than the original. He’s also supported the campaign for a statewide oil and gas ban in other ways, by endorsing a Colorado “pledge of resistance” against hydraulic fracturing and shooting a video that demands Gov. John Hickenlooper “get with the program” and “ban fracking now”:
Colorado has also been a top priority for Mark Ruffalo, who has a personal fortune estimated at $20 million to push his political beliefs. Ruffalo’s own environmental group, Water Defense, hired “ban fracking” activist and Occupy Wall Street organizer Russell Mendell from New York and sent him to Colorado. Recruiting Mendell from the ranks of OWS was no accident. As shown in this October 2011 video, Ruffalo actively courted these anti-business protestors to join his crusade against the oil and natural gas industry:
In 2012, Ruffalo’s Water Defense went a step further and created a group called Frack Free Colorado, in partnership with Food & Water Watch and Yoko Ono’s Artists Against Fracking. In addition to Ruffalo’s personal fortune, Food & Water Watch has annual revenues of roughly $12 million and Ono’s personal fortune has been estimated at roughly $500 million. Today, Mendell serves as Frack Free Colorado’s director and chief spokesman, a job which also involves doing everything possible to conceal his ties to the actor-activist Mark Ruffalo.
From its creation in 2012, Frack Free Colorado’s goal has been “to ban fracking in every city, county and the State of Colorado.” It followed through in 2013 by helping set up local “ban fracking” campaigns in the Northern Colorado cities of Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Lafayette and Broomfield. These campaigns built on the work already done in Longmont in 2012 by Food & Water Watch which, according to The Colorado Statesman, is one of the “major players behind the anti-fracking movement” and has “played a key role in supporting initiatives to ban or delay fracking in local communities.”
Promoting the same agenda in Colorado: Erie
According to the conventional wisdom in Colorado politics, Rep. Polis is pushing his statewide anti-energy measures because an oil and gas company drilled three wells across the road from the Congressman’s vacation home in Weld County last year. Rep. Polis even declared at the time: “I feel like the universe has selected me to be a poster boy for reining in out-of-control fracking.”
But the conventional wisdom is only partly true. Besides his work in Washington, Rep. Polis has been promoting the agenda of “ban fracking” activists here in Colorado for at least the past two years.
It started in Erie, Colo., in June 2012. Food & Water Watch declared Erie “ground zero” in the group’s “ban fracking” campaign after state and local officials approved a group of new wells roughly 1,300 feet – or the length of more than four football fields – from an elementary school. Mark Ruffalo was quoted in Food & Water Watch’s press release, and so was Josh Fox’s mother, Angela Monti Fox, who used Erie as the backdrop for the debut of her own “ban fracking” group, The Mothers Project.
But the activists had a problem. Even with the help of Ruffalo, Fox and Food & Water Watch, the “ban fracking” campaign in Erie was losing traction, because it was based on air quality claims that local officials had shown to be false. Enter Rep. Polis, who threw the activists a lifeline by using his office to draw fresh attention to their campaign. The Congressman issued a press release calling for a “1,000 foot buffer between schools and hydraulic fracturing activities” and declaring “we shouldn’t be using schoolchildren as guinea pigs.” Rep. Polis even cited the planned new wells for Erie in his press release.
But the move was just a political ploy devoid of any substance. The Congressman’s proposal would only apply to federal land, when state regulators had jurisdiction for the Erie wells. More importantly, even if the Erie wells were located on federal land, his proposed 1,000-foot setback would change nothing – the nearest school was already 1,300 feet away. But the activists got what they needed from the intervention of a high-profile elected official: A fresh round of press coverage for their false claims to help keep the Erie campaign afloat. That is, until the Erie “ban fracking” campaign finally failed a couple of months later.
Promoting the same agenda in Colorado: Floods
Just as Rep. Polis helped the activists in Erie, he intervened again in their favor more than a year later, when “ban fracking” groups tried to politicize the tragic floods that struck Colorado in September 2013.
Almost 2,000 oil and natural gas wells were located in the flooded areas of Weld County. The natural disaster also occurred during “ban fracking” campaigns in four nearby cities located in the district of Rep. Polis. And for the activists, the temptation to play politics and lobby the news media during a tragedy was too great to resist.
Josh Fox’s Gasland website falsely claimed Colorado was “drowning in frack fluid” and demanded Gov. Hickenlooper “immediately enact a statewide ban” on hydraulic fracturing. Likewise, Food & Water Watch alleged “tens of thousands of toxic chemicals floating down the river” from oil and gas well sites. The group further claimed “[w]e are just beginning to see the extent of the devastation” which “clearly demonstrates why these ballot initiatives are going forward to stop fracking.”
But none of what the activists told the news media was even remotely true. While damaged oil and gas equipment did result in some spills – the total was much less than the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool – public safety officials and other experts repeatedly said during the crisis the real danger came from “hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage.” Months later, a “lessons learned” report from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission confirmed the facts:
“Early on, there were widespread fears that public safety was threatened by damaged oil and gas equipment. Those fears later proved to be unfounded, but they attracted nationwide attention nevertheless.”
But during the crisis, despite the briefings he received from public safety officials, Rep. Polis intervened once again in favor of the activists. He demanded a Congressional hearing to investigate “the toxic spills that have occurred from the flooding of nearly 1,900 fracking wells.” Parroting the talking points of groups like Food & Water Watch, Rep. Polis concluded: “Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public health disasters.”
The press release from Rep. Polis generated yet another round of state and national headlines promoting the alarmist narrative of the local “ban fracking” campaigns, instead of the facts. In the end, oil and gas development bans passed in all four cities.
Promoting the same agenda in Colorado: Local energy bans
Even before the votes were counted in those four local contests, “ban fracking” groups were planning a statewide ballot initiative to eliminate oil and gas development across Colorado. Frack Free Colorado held a July 2013 meeting to “discuss the next steps toward a statewide fracking moratorium or ban,” according to the Boulder Daily Camera. Food & Water Watch even formed a new statewide group, Protect Our Colorado, to pursue a “statewide ban on the natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing,” the Aspen Daily News reported in August 2013.
But only weeks after “ban fracking” victories in four Northern Colorado cities, the campaign for a direct statewide ban on oil and gas development suffered a huge setback. A November 2013 Quinnipiac University poll found 51 percent of voters statewide supported “fracking for natural gas and oil,” and only 34 percent opposed it. The “ban fracking” activists needed a new strategy to fulfill their ambition to eliminate oil and gas production statewide.
So in February 2014, the same groups behind Frack Free Colorado created yet another statewide group, Local Control Colorado. The “new” organization was led by the same “ban fracking” activists as before, as the conservative political blog Colorado Peak Politics pointed out almost immediately. But in an interview with the Denver Post, a Local Control Colorado spokeswoman actually denied wanting to ban oil and gas development locally or statewide:
“This isn’t about banning fracking, it is about giving communities the ability to put some controls on development.”
This denial was debunked almost immediately when Local Control Colorado was caught on tape coordinating with Americans Against Fracking – the same group affiliated with Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and Food & Water Watch, which is working to ban oil and gas development statewide and nationally. According to the conservative news outlet Complete Colorado, Local Control Colorado representative Kaye Fissinger told the activists on the call:
“Those of us who are working to ban fracking will be excited to hear that under the name of Local Control Colorado, a coalition of grassroots groups has moved forward to create a statewide ballot measure … [W]e hope all of the listeners tonight will join us in many ways to help secure passage Local Control Colorado’s constitutional amendment. A victory this November is a victory for all of America.”
Later, the call concluded with the activists chanting: “Ban fracking now!”
Facebook post of the Americans Against Fracking conference call that confirmed Local Control Colorado is a “ban fracking” group.
With Local Control Colorado discredited as just another “ban fracking” group, Rep. Polis once again intervened on the activists’ side of the debate. In March, Fox 31 Denver reported the Congressman was “putting his own money behind a series of possible ballot measures aimed at allowing local communities to ban fracking.” Within weeks, the Rep. Polis-backed Coloradans for Local Control released a 30-second TV ad. By early May, Coloradans for Local Control had raised at least $1.45 million and given the money to a newly created ballot issue committee – also tied to Rep. Polis – called Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy.
That’s when Local Control Colorado – the group backed by Food & Water Watch and other “ban fracking” groups – revealed a sudden shift in strategy. According to The Colorado Observer, “Local Control Colorado dropped its petition for a statewide anti-fracking initiative in May, opting instead to back the efforts of Democratic Rep. Jared Polis.” When the change in strategy was announced, Local Control Colorado spokeswoman Kelly Giddens told the Observer her group was willing to support other measures, as long as they made local oil and gas bans legal:
“We would love to help out a group that is able to get language through that would allow for those things. We’re ready. We’ve got the ground troops ready to go.”
Did Rep. Polis really want a “local control” deal?
Since May, much has been written about the negotiations led by Gov. Hickenlooper to pass a “local control” law in a special session of the state legislature. Those negotiations, which failed to produce a deal, were meant to persuade Rep. Polis to drop his ballot measures. During the talks, Food & Water Watch and other “ban fracking” groups lobbied hard against the deal, because it did not change the state law making local oil and gas bans illegal.
On the surface, this appeared to put the activists at odds with Rep. Polis, who was a key player in the failed special-session negotiations. But when you take a deeper dive, it’s debatable whether Rep. Polis really wanted a legislative deal himself. According to the Denver Post, Rep. Polis demanded “the stiff caveat that lawmakers make no changes” to the proposed deal, a move that immediately alienated both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature. For example, State Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) told Fox 31 Denver: “I don’t think any Senate Republican is going to vote for a deal to buy off Jared Polis.” And as State Sen. Lois Tochrop (D-Thornton) explained to The Colorado Statesman:
“I think it’s completely disingenuous for one elected official to hold 100 members of the general assembly hostage. … I find the entire process disingenuous and I can’t support it.”
Then, after the special-session negotiations failed, Rep. Polis issued a statement distancing himself from the proposed deal. He even suggested the talks were destined to fail from the very beginning:
“I want to thank all of the stakeholders who were involved in the crafting of a legislative solution to the fracking chaos currently enveloping Colorado. … When they began their work, they all knew that the chances of success were slim, but that the effort was worth it. … Now, as it has become clear that the path to passing a legislative compromise has been obstructed, we must turn to the people of Colorado to solve this problem.”
Tough talk aside, the performance of the Polis-backed campaign has been horrendous so far. For example, Denver Post editorial page editor Vincent Carroll skewered Rep. Polis and the website for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, which says oil and gas development can take place “anytime, anywhere in Colorado” under current law. Here is how Carroll responded to the central claim of the Polis-backed campaign:
“This is a lie in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to start.”
That’s because, in the words of former Gov. Bill Ritter (D), “[m]ost industry and environmental experts agree that Colorado has the strongest set of oil and gas regulations in America.”
Rep. Polis is also watching his fellow Democrats distance themselves from him and his anti-energy campaign. Besides Gov. Hickenlooper and Sen. Udall, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff – who is running for Congress this year – also announced his opposition to the Polis-backed measures. Even U.S. Rep Diana DeGette (D-Denver) – who has joined Polis in supporting the FRAC Act for years – appears to be nervous about what the Boulder Congressman is doing. According to the Denver Business Journal, Rep. DeGette could not bring herself to support Rep. Polis when asked about the coming campaign. Instead, Rep. DeGette “declined to take a stand for or against the measures.”
Conclusion: Pro-energy words versus anti-energy actions
When Rep. Polis tells the public he’s a supporter of oil and natural gas production in Colorado, he’s really asking Coloradans to take his word for it. But actions speak louder than words, and there’s a long list of actions Rep. Polis has taken through the years that have promoted the cause of anti-energy activists like Josh Fox and Mark Ruffalo.
It really comes down to common sense. Rep. Polis cannot seriously claim to be pro-energy when he has used his office and his fortune to support the agenda of anti-energy activists in Colorado.