Antifracking victories: Voters reject industry, Hickenlooper threats of lawsuits

Despite being outspent by oil and gas interests by more than 30-1 -- and facing the threat of more litigation by Colorado's gas-friendly governor -- fracktivists are celebrating the passage of ballot measures prohibiting new drilling in Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins. The moratorium vote on oil and gas production in a fourth city, Broomfield, remains too close to call, with the latest returns showing the proposed five-year ban in that municipality losing by a mere thirteen votes, with up to 363 ballots still to be counted.

"I just think that people don't want to be fracked," says Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action, which supports the fracking bans. "It appears that no amount of money spent by the oil and gas industry can change that."

Few issues in Colorado have become as divisive in recent years as the boom in hydraulic fracturing -- using massive amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals to extract oil and gas from tight shale formations thousands of feet below the surface. Environmental groups have raised questions about threats to air and water quality; grassroots opponents have railed about property values and criticized the efforts of state regulators. Under the leadership of former environmental activist Tisha Schuller, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has spent freely on lobbying against tighter statewide restrictions on fracking -- and poured more than $800,000 into efforts to defeat the four local bans this fall. But the ad blitz opposing the measures, contending they would cost jobs and hurt the economy, was sharply criticized in some quarters for being alarmist and "headshakingly embarrassing."

John Hickenlooper at a press conference earlier this year.
John Hickenlooper at a press conference earlier this year.

The cash infusion did little to change hearts and minds in Boulder, where a five-year suspension on drilling has comfortably carried three-quarters of the vote. Fort Collins, where COGA spent roughly half its wad, adopted a similar moratorium by a 56-43 margin. The result in Lafayette, which was presented with a more indefinite ban, wasn't even that close, with "yes" votes leading by a 59-41 margin. In Broomfield, the vote is just about deadlocked, with 10,266 opposing the moratorium and 10,253 for it.

The spread of voter-approved, multiyear bans on drilling shows the strength of antifracking sentiment in some the Front Range's most politically liberal cities. Wockner notes that Governor John Hickenlooper has consistently opposed such local moratoria and has threatened to sue municipalities that challenge state authority over regulation; the state is already in litigation with Longmont over its outright ban (not a temporary suspension) of fracking. "Governor Hickenlooper's statements are increasingly brazen and arrogant," Wockner says. "He says people aren't educated about fracking. Maybe it's the governor who's not educated. He needs to listen to the voters."

B.J. Nikkels, the former state legislator who served as a coordinator of the pro-fracking camp, couldn't be reached this morning for comment. We'll update this post if and when she gets back to us.

More from our Environment archive: "Fracking interests, Xcel spend more than $1 million combined on ballot issues."

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