With a little less than 24 hours to go before his inauguration, Governor Jared Polis got a polite but firm reminder from environmental activists about the issues that could very well define his time in office: fracking and climate change.
With inaugural banners already hanging outside, representatives from 350 Colorado, Colorado Rising and a half-dozen other groups paid a visit on Monday, January 7, to Polis’s new digs at the State Capitol, where they delivered a petition calling on Colorado’s incoming governor to take action against the oil and gas industry.
“We’re very concerned, obviously, about the climate crisis,” Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado, told a Polis staffer in a brief meeting; activists were told the governor-elect wasn’t available to receive the petition in person. “We know the governor cares about these issues, and we hope he’ll take this very seriously.”
Polis spokeswoman Maria De Cambra said that the incoming administration hadn’t had time to review the petition amid preparations for today's inauguration, and declined to comment on its demands. Polis will be inaugurated today, January 8.
The petition, signed by more than 5,000 people and endorsed by 180 organizations from across the state, calls on Polis to take “immediate and meaningful actions” to protect Coloradans from both the health and safety hazards posed by fossil-fuel extraction and the long-term risks of climate change. Activists are calling for a moratorium on drilling permits until new regulations can be put in place, and the petition’s demands offer a glimpse at where Colorado’s long-running battles over fracking could be headed as Polis and the new Democratic majority in the state legislature take over.
The first of its demands is a familiar call for an increase in the required setback distances between new oil and gas wells and occupied buildings. That’s a step that Colorado voters rejected in November when it appeared on their ballots as Proposition 112. But the petitioners note that the measure garnered nearly 45 percent of the vote despite being outspent forty to one by an industry-funded opposition campaign, which they say is a “strong message from Coloradans demanding protective action now.”
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In addition to increased setbacks, activists are calling for reform of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency that oversees drilling across the state — starting with a small but important change to its mission statement. Created in 1951, decades before scientists concluded that the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels was warming the climate, the COGCC was explicitly designed not only to regulate oil and gas drilling, but to encourage it. State law defines the agency’s mission like so: “[To] foster the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of the natural resources of oil and gas in the state of Colorado.” Activists say that’s a dangerously outdated objective.
“In the year 2019, when we know we have a serious climate crisis, for any government agency to be tasked with ‘fostering’ fossil-fuel development is ridiculous,” says Parkin.
The letter also calls on the Polis administration to adopt a much more aggressive target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: transitioning to a 100 percent carbon-neutral economy by 2035 or sooner. Outgoing governor John Hickenlooper has committed the state to a 26 percent cut in overall emissions by 2025, while Polis has called for achieving 100 percent renewable electricity generation by 2040. But Parkin says that action on climate change needs to happen sooner and can’t be limited to supporting clean energy; Polis and the new legislature must also be willing to oppose the state’s powerful, deep-pocketed fossil-fuel industry.
“Too many politicians haven’t made that connection yet, or refuse to make that connection,” Parkin says. “That’s one of the tasks that we see before us, making sure that addressing oil and gas development here in Colorado goes hand in hand with promoting renewable energy. We have to address both, or we’re never going to be playing the part that we need to play in Colorado to address the global climate crisis.”