Environmental issues are in the air — and below the ground

The Colorado Statesman

As Earth Day approaches on Tuesday, environmental issues are in the air — and below the ground.

Citizens are pushing a series of ballot initiatives that would allow bans on hydraulic fracturing, while the oil and gas industry continues to grapple with how to educate the public on what they perceive to be the benefits of so-called “fracking.”

The industry — led by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy — formed an issue committee to fight fracking bans, using about $2 million to launch Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute and other industry associations are stacking away millions of dollars to fight the initiatives.

On the other side, Coloradans for Local Control, along with the issue committee Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, are also gearing up for the campaign. They will attempt to convince voters to authorize local control over oil and gas development, potentially expanding fracking bans in some towns, cities and counties.

Some industry and environmental insiders expect that the election could top $50 million between the two sides — mostly because Colorado is pioneering the movement. It is not lost on the industry that a critical national precedent could be set based on how Colorado acts.

The advertising has already started to hit the airwaves in Colorado. Coloradans will get their first true glimpse into spending next month when the first campaign finance reports are due. But already at least $5 million was spent even before the initiatives had their titles set.

In all, there were a total of 19 proposed initiatives for the secretary of state’s office to review concerning local control over oil and gas and the environment. Three of those had their titles set on Wednesday. Ten others had their titles amended. Another six were withdrawn.

The proposed initiatives aim to establish local control over oil and gas development, including potentially banning fracking and mandating setbacks for wells from occupied structures.

Proponents would still need to collect 86,105 valid signatures to make the ballot, and it is likely that they will trim the list of initiatives down even more. They could also challenge the titles with the Colorado Supreme Court, which is something proponents are evaluating.

Fracking is controversial because it employs the pressure of a fluid — composed of chemicals, sand and water — to increase extraction rates. Concerns have grown that water can become contaminated and air can become polluted, especially as the process has made its way to the Front Range. There are also nuisance concerns, such as noise and congestion.

The issue hit the mainstream in Colorado in 2012 when voters in Longmont banned fracking. It gained momentum last year when Broomfield, Fort Collins and Boulder joined with five-year moratoriums. Lafayette passed a ban on new oil and gas activities. Loveland may also soon be considering a ban on fracking.

The initiatives passed despite big spending by the oil and gas industry.

“What does that tell you?” asked Rick Ridder, a strategist for the Coloradans for Local Control campaign. “That the strength of human experience cannot necessarily be swayed by the strength of cash.

“What it shapes up to be is are Coloradans able to control their future?” he continued. “It’s the ability to have safe water, clean air, playgrounds that are not under the shadow of fracking rigs, or whether or not the oil and gas industry is going to have carte blanche in their efforts to extract Coloradans’ oil and gas without any protections for those Coloradans.”

Ridder’s opponents in the oil and gas industry, however, say before citizens rush to the polls, they may want to listen to what the industry has to say about responsible drilling.

Jon Haubert, spokesman for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, or CRED, said his group is taking up the educational component of the initiative while the issue committee will fight the ballot questions.

“No matter what comes up, whether it’s a ballot issue, or there’s a city or local issue … people have a lot of questions about fracking. They don’t know what it is…” explained Haubert. “Regardless of if something is on the ballot or not, people need to learn about fracking in Colorado because it’s going to be an issue for a long time.”

The campaign includes educating voters on the history of fracking and pointing out that it’s been used in Colorado for more than 60 years. Fracking supporters also note that in the United States, wells have been fracked over 1.2 million times.

“It’s part of the key of how we’re reducing carbon pollution…” said Haubert. “The general public has been totally left out of the conversation, and the industry needs to do a better job of educating Coloradans about what they do for a living.”

Legal ramifications

Republican Attorney General John Suthers agrees that the issue has a lot to do with education. Part of what he is doing as the state’s top attorney is offering instruction on the legal ramifications of banning hydraulic fracturing.

When Longmont prohibited fracking, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association sued to overturn the law. COGA believes the municipality has overstepped the state’s authority. The state is also suing Longmont on behalf of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for separate oil and gas rules enacted by the city council.
Suthers spoke Wednesday in Denver at the first public gathering of attorneys general on hydraulic fracturing.

“The debate in Colorado… has taken to the airwaves,” Suthers addressed the summit. “I think it’s pretty clear that the industry has been unable to convince all Colorado citizens that oil and gas operations are safe… and I think there’s a significant amount of support for local regulation…”

Suthers believes one solution to the local control issue could be utilizing memorandums of understanding between local governments and the industry.
“Basically, contractually the industry has agreed to some form of local regulation…” explained Suthers. “And as I understand it, those memorandums of agreement are enforceable in the commission. That I think has some real potential.”

Politics complicate the anti-fracking agenda

But an interesting political dynamic is playing out as a result of the initiatives and anti-fracking discussions. Democrats are fighting hard to re-elect Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. A politically toxic issue such as fracking could divide the party.

Hickenlooper especially has felt the wrath of so-called “fractivists.” The former geologist has long held the oil and gas industry up as a model for environmental and economic stewardship.

That was highlighted at the Democratic State Assembly last Saturday when repeated cries of “Don’t frack Colorado” rang through the theater where Democrats caucused at the Colorado Convention Center. Hickenlooper was even interrupted during his nomination speech by an activist.

Outside the theater, while Hickenlooper spoke with reporters, a group of fractivists surrounded the governor. Usually at these assemblies fellow Democrats tend to lob praise at one another. In this case, Hickenlooper was attacked.

“The question on fracking is making sure it can be done environmentally safe,” the governor started telling reporters before he was interrupted by an anti-fracking activist.

“It can’t, that’s the point. It just can’t. It’s been proven,” the woman responded. “It’s contaminated everything around it. It’s causing birth defects; it’s contaminating the watershed. You cannot say you support clean water, clean air and then turn around and support fracking.

“I’m worried about the water... being able to catch fire is what I’m worried about,” she continued to interrupt and press the governor.

“That’s your opinion…” replied Hickenlooper. “Natural gas, which we can’t get without fracking… allows us to turn dirty coal plants into generating electricity with natural gas, which is 60 percent cleaner…”

The woman once again interrupted, “Unless it’s contaminating the groundwater.”
Hickenlooper rebutted, “I can take you and show you places where they’ve drilled water wells where there’s coal bed methane and they’ve been drilling deeper and there’s been fracking, but people there for 50 years, long before any fracking happened, have been getting gas coming out of their faucets.”

Hickenlooper also told reporters that he is not concerned about the fracking issue causing a rift within the Democratic Party, despite one delegate expressing concern to the governor that he won’t be able to motivate some Democrats to vote for him because they are issue voters.

The governor pointed out that his administration is working towards moderate solutions, such as a recent rulemaking by the Air Quality Control Commission that established the first methane emissions regulations in the nation.

“Anytime you’re dealing with complex issues, you can’t make everyone happy all the time. You just can’t,” he said. “And so we are determined to try and find the compromises that allow us to move forward.”

Supporting the local control effort, however, is U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder, who also spoke at the assembly. The self-made millionaire plans to stay in the shadows, but he will be supporting the drive behind the scenes.

“While Congressman Polis believes that hydraulic fracturing is an important part of an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy plan, he has long believed that homeowners lack sufficient avenues to protect their health, property and communities from the negative impacts that can sometimes accompany fracking,” said Scott Overland, a Polis spokesman. “He hopes that there will be a legislative fix to address this issue, but if that is unsuccessful he will be supportive of a ballot initiative that protects communities and homeowners.”

Polis became engaged in the issue after he experienced it firsthand when a well was drilled near his country home just outside Loveland.

While he supports Hickenlooper’s re-election campaign, and rallied for the governor at the assembly, Polis made it clear that the fracking issue remains critical.

“In protecting our environment, across the world, eliminating our carbon emissions and making sure that America can play a leadership role in addressing global warming, or here at home to make sure that natural gas and fracking doesn’t threaten jobs in our state and to help Colorado citizens. We can and we will do a better job,” said Polis.

Ridder is not concerned about the political implications of the campaign, acknowledging that Democrats like Hickenlooper and Polis will be divided on the issue.

“Many people always talk about initiatives and referendums in terms of partisan terms, but most Americans don’t wake up in the morning and say this Democrat or that Republican supported this,” explained Ridder. “It’s a question of whether something is impacting their life or could impact their life.”

Haubert agreed, calling the politics “interesting,” but stopped short of saying that it would impact the opposition and educational campaigns.

“If the concerns are strictly political, that’s what they are, politics,” he said. “But people want balance, they want energy and protecting the environment, and we figured out how to do that.”

Environmental issues hit state Capitol

One thing that could stop the ballot initiatives in their tracks is if the state legislature tackles the local control issue this year. House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said this week that some lawmakers are still considering a local control measure for this legislative session.

“The work is still going on,” said Hullinghorst. “I really can’t say whether we’ll see something in this session. I think there are a lot of well-meaning people involved trying to work something out… and if in fact there is some agreement, I think we might have a bill.”

Overall, however, the legislature is taking a few steps this year towards protecting the environment. The high priority bills include:

• Senate Bill 103, sponsored by Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, which would phase-out low-efficiency plumbing fixtures. The measure is awaiting the governor’s signature;

• House Bill 1356, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, which would increase penalties for oil and gas companies that violate Colorado law. The bill is awaiting a final vote in the House before heading to the Senate;

• Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, which would require producers of architectural paint to participate in a recycling program. The legislation has passed the Senate and is moving through the House;

• Senate Bill 192, sponsored by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, which would increase regulations on facilities working with radioactive materials such as uranium. The measure has been introduced in the Senate; and

• House Bill 1297, sponsored by Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, which would require a study along the Front Range of health impacts as a result of oil and gas development. The bill passed the House on Thursday and now heads to the Senate.

“We need to know more of what those impacts are, like a health study, to understand exactly what’s happening out there…” explained Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

Maysmith believes the legislature made moderate progress on environmental issues this year, though he said there is still much more to accomplish.

In the meantime, he points out that the legislature this year rejected measures that would have repealed or watered-down certain environmental laws from last year, such as one that created a rural renewable energy standard.

“What was noteworthy was just how completely flat that effort fell…” said Maysmith. “Frankly, there was hardly any testimony in favor of these bills to weaken the standards… What that says is that Coloradans like wind, they like solar energy, and we’re pretty far down that path and we’ve committed to that path of renewable energy.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com