Activists File Initiative to Ban Oil and Gas Drilling in Denver

Maarten Heerlien / Flickr
An oil well near Johnstown, Colorado.
The climate activists behind an energy-tax initiative slated to appear on Denver's 2020 ballot want to double down with a newly submitted measure that seeks to ban the extraction of fossil fuels within city limits.

Activists with Resilient Denver filed a proposed amendment to the city charter with Denver elections officials last week, and will receive feedback on their draft ballot language in a hearing with Denver City Council members and the city attorney on Friday, January 31. It would be the second initiative proposed by Resilient Denver to appear on the 2020 ballot, after the group successfully backed a measure that will ask voters to approve a tax on electricity and natural-gas consumption to better fund the city's climate-action programs.

"Resilient Denver has made the decision to bring a second issue to the ballot this November," Ean Tafoya, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement. "We recognize that the climate emergency demands bold policy and urgent, decisive action. That means keeping fossil fuels in the ground as we make the necessary, overdue, and cost-effective shift to renewables."

There are only a few dozen old oil and gas wells within Denver city limits — all of them in and around Denver International Airport, in the far northeast corner of the city — and no plans to drill more anytime soon, according to permit data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The DIA wells are "conventional" wells that were drilled decades ago; Denver hasn't seen the kind of modern, heavy-industrial drilling taking place just to the north in communities like Commerce City and Broomfield, where companies operate large multi-well pads and employ more disruptive, controversial extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

The proposed amendment would make sure things stay that way, adding language to the city charter that reads, in part: "It shall hereby be the policy of the City and County of Denver that it is prohibited to extract fossil fuel, including but not limited to hydraulic fracturing to extract oil, gas, or other hydrocarbons within the City of Denver and all of its subsurface areas."

Even though there's no new drilling in Denver in the works, the measure could draw the ire of Colorado's powerful oil and gas industry, which might worry about the precedent it could set. Senate Bill 181, a landmark package of drilling reforms enacted by state lawmakers last year, gave local governments more power to regulate oil and gas development within their borders, but many of its Democratic supporters have stressed that it doesn't give cities the authority to ban fracking outright.

Because the measure is a charter amendment, activists will need to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of Denver's registered voters — more than 24,000 people, three times the number of signatures that Resilient Denver collected to put the energy tax on the ballot as an initiated ordinance. If the proposed fracking ban makes the ballot, it would also need 55 percent of the vote to pass.

But Resilient Denver organizers, several of whom backed the 2017 Green Roof initiative that was later overhauled by city council, say that clearing the higher bar of the charter-amendment process is necessary to prevent councilmembers from overriding voters again.

"We're tired of our leaders making changes," says Tafoya. "We want this to be in the charter."