As “Local Control” of Fracking Begins, Small-Town Elections Draw Big Money

An oil and gas site in Broomfield.EXPAND
An oil and gas site in Broomfield.
Anthony Camera
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Many Colorado voters sitting down to fill out their ballots this year will be doing something no one in the state has ever done before.

In more than a dozen towns along the Front Range and beyond, residents are voting to elect mayors and city council members who will have the power to control where and how oil and gas development can take place within their city limits. A new law enacted by Democrats at the State Capitol in April, Senate Bill 181, empowered local governments to regulate drilling for the first time ever.

For a handful of suburban communities north of Denver, where battles over fracking have been fought for years, these new "local control" powers have changed everything. The stakes have never been higher — and the money being spent on some local races proves it.

In Thornton, mayoral candidate Jan Kulmann has raised over $70,000 for her campaign for the part-time position, campaign finance reports show, including more than $20,000 from Kulmann herself. An executive at Denver-based Whiting Petroleum, Kulmann has served on Thornton City Council since 2013.

“Seventy thousand dollars is a lot of money for a city of Thornton race,” says Suzie Brundage, an activist who unsuccessfully challenged Kulmann for her Ward 4 council seat in 2017. “For me, it’s important that the people aren’t drowned out by big corporate money, and that our voices don’t get lost in all of this.”

Disclosures show that Kulmann’s campaign has received more than $16,000 in contributions from organizations and individuals with ties to the fossil-fuel industry. That total includes $1,500 each from American Energy Advocates, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit, and Heidi Gill, a former Anadarko executive and founder of Urban Solution Group, which offers “mitigation planning” to oil and gas drillers operating near residential areas.

Like many other municipalities in the region, Thornton has a fraught history with fracking and efforts to control it at the local level. While there has been no new drilling in Thornton in more than a decade, several major active or proposed projects sit just outside city limits in unincorporated Adams County or nearby Broomfield.

The city attempted to pass a set of stricter local regulations governing oil and gas operations in 2017. Kulmann was one of just two council members to vote against the rules, which prompted a lawsuit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute, and were partially struck down in court a year later. Donors to Kulmann’s campaign include several employees of both COGA and API.

“It is no secret that I work in the oil and gas industry,” Kulmann wrote in an email to Westword. “Because of [my] job, it isn’t unusual that my colleagues would donate to my campaign.”

“Currently there are no active sites or pending permits in the city of Thornton,” she added. “Should that change, I look forward to a robust conversation about how best to safeguard our community.”

It’s a similar story in local races across the Denver metro area, including in Aurora, where mayoral candidate and former congressman Mike Coffman has raked in tens of thousands of dollars in fossil-fuel contributions. Campaign finance reports show that Coffman’s top donors include Allan Heinle, an oil and gas executive who contributed $10,000; Benson Mineral Group, founded by former University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, which has given a total of $10,000; and Energy Corporation of America CEO John Mork, who gave $5,000.

Aurora City Council candidates, too, have benefited from campaign cash from the oil and gas industry. Ward V incumbent Bob Roth accepted a $1,150 contribution from ConocoPhillips, the operator of a massive extraction project on the eastern edge of the city that could ultimately involve drilling over 300 new wells at dozens of surface locations. The Aurora City Council narrowly approved an operator agreement with ConocoPhillips in June, with six council members, including Roth, voting yes.

It’s in smaller communities, however, that oil and gas contributions are particularly eye-catching. In Broomfield, disclosures show that incumbent council member David Beacom, who is being challenged by anti-fracking activist Heidi Henkel in Ward 5, accepted a $5,000 contribution from Steve Reynolds, founder and vice president of Denver-based Infinity Oil and Gas; his wife, Paula Reynolds, also contributed $5,000 to Ward 4 candidate Emily Crouse-Joo. No other Broomfield city council candidate has accepted an outside contribution of more than $1,000 this year, according to campaign finance reports.

In some cases, anti-fracking candidates are raising plenty of money, too; Henkel has raised more than $17,000, much of it from small donors. In Aurora, the Conservation Colorado Grassroots Action Fund received a $40,000 contribution from the Green Advocacy Project, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, and another Conservation Colorado committee has raised $4,000 in Thornton.

Brundage and other residents opposed to fracking are worried about the possible consequences of electing a city government that’s more favorable to oil and gas development — especially in a new era of local control.

“I think we could continue to see drilling further and further into residential areas,” Brundage says. “If the industry is willing to drop so much money, what’s in the plans?”

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