Anti-Fracking Group Wants to Put Another Setback Measure on 2020 Ballot

Colorado Rising, the group behind an anti-fracking ballot initiative rejected by voters in 2018, is planning to try again in 2020.
Colorado Rising, the group behind an anti-fracking ballot initiative rejected by voters in 2018, is planning to try again in 2020. Metaphortography/iStock

The group behind a defeated 2018 Colorado ballot measure that would have imposed a strict spacing requirement on new oil and gas wells is trying again — but it hasn’t yet decided exactly how.

Anti-fracking group Colorado Rising said today, January 7, that it has submitted six proposed ballot initiatives to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, including different measures that would increase statewide setback distances, which mandate how far back from occupied buildings and other sensitive areas new oil and gas drilling sites must be located.

“Last time, we lost by a very small margin,” says Anne Lee Foster, Colorado Rising’s communications director. “This is actually the fourth time that we have attempted this. We’ve continued to build community power over the past decade. More communities have been impacted by this destructive industry, and we see this as something reasonable and necessary to protect Coloradans, and also our global climate.”

One of the submitted initiatives is identical to Proposition 112, an unsuccessful 2018 initiative that was backed by Colorado Rising and would have increased setback distances to 2,500 feet. The group also submitted four other setback measures with a variety of changes, including reducing the setback distance to 2,000 feet and inserting a provision that would allow private property owners to waive the requirement.

Ballot language for all five setback measures has been filed with the secretary of state, setting up a Title Board hearing that would review each initiative's language and potentially approving them for signature-gathering. But Colorado Rising plans to ultimately move forward with only one of the five.

“We took feedback from the 2018 process,” Foster says. “We haven’t decided which one to pursue yet. We’re looking for community feedback to help us determine which one to proceed with.”

Colorado voters rejected Proposition 112 by ten points in 2018, following a heated campaign that saw a powerful coalition of oil and gas companies and industry groups outspend proponents by a 40-to-1 margin. Many prominent Democrats, including Governor Jared Polis and his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, joined the industry in opposing the measure.

In the wake of a 2018 election that saw Democrats win back full control of the state legislature, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 181, a sweeping passage of oil and gas reforms that strengthened health and safety protections and gave more power to local governments over drilling within their borders. It was hailed by Polis as an end to the “oil and gas wars” that have embroiled the state since a massive drilling boom began in northeast Colorado in the late 2000s, pushing industry operations into dense and fast-growing Front Range communities. But Colorado Rising and other anti-fracking activists have been underwhelmed by the law’s impact.

“We’ve been, overall, disappointed by the results there,” Foster says. “We don’t have a lot of faith in the politicians and the regulators to rebuke corporate influence. That’s why we’re taking on this enormous task again, to protect our communities.”

Foster also pointed to a long-awaited air-quality modeling study released by state health officials in October 2019, which concluded that emissions of toxic chemicals like benzene pose short-term health risks to people in the surrounding area. In unfavorable conditions, the study’s modeling showed that negative health effects could be experienced at distances up to 2,000 feet — the maximum distance modeled, and four times greater than the state’s current minimum setback from single-family homes.

Oil and gas groups downplayed the significance of the report, emphasizing its reliance on computer modeling — which, said Lynn Granger of the Colorado Petroleum Council at the time, “introduces uncertainties and limitations that may result in erroneous estimates of risk for a population.”

But the study’s findings are consistent with years of health complaints recorded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Hundreds of residents have submitted complaints that reported headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, respiratory issues and other symptoms experienced near drilling sites over the past decade.

Mackenzie Carignan, a Broomfield resident who lives about a mile from a drilling site operated by Extraction Oil and Gas, is one of those residents. While tucking her children into bed on a warm night in July 2019, she said, she began to notice a chemical smell wafting into her house, and soon she and her family experienced an "overwhelming chemical fume" that caused their eyes and throats to burn.

"We couldn't believe how intense and potent the fumes were, a mile away from the pad," Carignan says. "Our eyes and throats burned for days. It was an extremely traumatic event."

In addition to the five possible setback measures, Colorado Rising also submitted an initiative that would dramatically increase the state's bonding requirement — in essence, a security deposit that operators must make to cover the potential cleanup or abandonment costs associated with a well. The measure would impose a bonding requirement of $270,000 per well, replacing a system in which large operators are able to purchase a blanket $100,000 statewide surety bond.

Activists say that increased bonding requirements are necessary to guard against the fallout from an accelerating global clean-energy transition, a glut of cheap natural gas, mounting debt on the books of many operators and the growing financial instability that is rocking the industry around the world.

"Right now the oil and gas industry is experiencing quite a bit of financial strife," Foster says. "Many companies are going bankrupt as a result of this. This put Colorado taxpayers at risk of having to clean up these abandoned wells, and we see this as a way to protect Coloradans from that burden."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff