Environmental Group Alleges Election Interference Over Oil and Gas Setback Petition

Coloradans have less than two months to submit enough signatures to the Secretary of State's Office to make the November ballot, and allegations of election interference are already being pursued.

But the Russians aren't the antagonists in this story. It's pro-oil and gas groups that are being accused of organizing "paid actors" to intimidate and bully petition circulators and potential voters over a controversial ballot initiative that could effectively hamstring new oil and gas development in the state.

Environmental advocacy group Colorado Rising for Health and Safety began circulating Initiative 97 in April; the initiative would require 2,500-foot-minimum setbacks between new oil and gas developments and a slew of occupied structures and "vulnerable areas." Pro-industry groups have staunchly opposed the initiative with the usual talking points that the setback would kill jobs and hurt the economy. The Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners (CAMRO) even threatened that if the initiative were approved by voters in November, the state would be on the hook to compensate mineral owners in the Wattenberg Field — one of the top ten producing oil and gas fields in the country, located in Weld and Adams counties — to the tune of $26 billion for untapped minerals from which owners would no longer collect royalties. 

Fracking opponents have continued to support Initiative 97 despite industry claims and threats, and now petition circulators say they have been met with opposition in the streets. Colorado Rising volunteers are alleging that they have been harassed, intimidated and bullied by paid actors posing as counter-protesters. The group alleges that their petition circulators have frequently been stalked for several blocks and that these agitators hold banners, block voters from confronting circulators, and yell at approaching voters not to trust the circulator with their personal information, which they would have to divulge to sign the petition. Colorado Rising says it has recorded many counter-protesters at multiple locations in the past few weeks who were stalking volunteers and were said to have taken photos of voters who signed the petition.

click to enlarge Three counter-protesters flank a Colorado Rising volunteer circulating a petition for Initiative 97. - COURTESY COLORADO RISING
Three counter-protesters flank a Colorado Rising volunteer circulating a petition for Initiative 97.
Courtesy Colorado Rising

Colorado Rising volunteer Anne Lee Foster says she was approached by two men when she was collecting signatures in Boulder on May 27. "They stood very close to me on either side and unrolled signs to discourage people from signing my petition. They told people that I was untrustworthy and generally smeared my character," Foster recalls. "I feel this is an egregious and audacious attempt to manipulate the election process. This is an attack on our right to direct democracy, and also on Coloradans' right to the ballot initiative process and our right to self-governance."

In one video, a counter-protester says that the setback ballot initiative would create new taxes. (Initiative 97 does not talk about taxes at all and is strictly about setbacks.)

Colorado Rising says that the same tactic was used in 2016 when a similar setback petition was circulated. The group intends to file criminal complaints with district attorneys this week in at least four jurisdictions where the alleged harassment took place, including Boulder, Denver, Larimer and Weld counties.

The environmental group says that while these agitators have posed as volunteers, they have at least one recorded incident where a man admitted to being paid before quickly backtracking his admission. It's unclear who organized this opposition effort and whether the pro-fracking protesters are paid actors or volunteers. No organization has been formally accused at this time, and Colorado Rising has no evidence linking the agitators with any particular pro-industry group.

"We've seen these bully tactics from industry front groups before. ... We feel there has been illegal activity, harassment and intimidation tactics being used," Foster says.

click to enlarge Fort Collins resident and Colorado Rising volunteer Liz Kekahbah told reporters at a press conference on June 20 that counter-protesters were snapping photos of voters who signed her petition. - COURTESY COLORADO RISING
Fort Collins resident and Colorado Rising volunteer Liz Kekahbah told reporters at a press conference on June 20 that counter-protesters were snapping photos of voters who signed her petition.
Courtesy Colorado Rising
Colorado Rising initially took its allegations of at least twenty incidents of harassment to the Secretary of State's Office, which oversees the state's elections, on June 20. However, that office says the allegations could be criminal in nature, so it's up to the districts attorneys to investigate.

"As far as penalties regarding petition signature-gatherers, we don't have anything like that, and we don't have that power. It's really a criminal matter, so they have to take that up with the [district attorney]," says Julia Sunny, a spokesperson for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.

While anti-fracking activists are pounding the pavement to push for setbacks, one of the most prominent pro-industry groups is fighting back with its own ballot initiative. Protect Colorado, a PAC created by the state's largest oil and gas companies, has raised $10.8 million so far to push for Initiative 108, which would require the government to compensate companies and property owners if their fair market value is reduced by a new law or regulation, including if property restrictions prevent oil and gas minerals from being tapped. That would open the door for groups like CAMRO to sue the state for billions of dollars in damages.

Protect Colorado's top three contributors are Anadarko Petroleum, Extraction Oil and Gas, and Noble Energy, which have donated more than $2 million each. Protect Colorado wasn't available for comment as of press time.