On July 23, Boulder County commissioners said they would not put a measure on November's ballot that would mandate a moratorium on oil and gas development. The move was a pre-emptive strike against a petition and formal letter that 350 Colorado planned to submit to the commissioners that same day.
Over fifty organizations and nonprofits representing 130,000 Boulder County residents had signed the petition and letter, which called for a .05 percent sales-and-use tax for five years that would cover the costs of implementing and supporting the moratorium, among other things. Boulder County's current moratorium on fracking is slated to expire on December 31.
“While we sincerely appreciate the tremendous thought, effort, and support behind this proposal — and we agree that all avenues should be explored to further protect the health and safety of our residents and the environment — for a variety of reasons, we decline to put such a measure on this year’s ballot,” commissioners said in announcing their decision.
The commissioners cited the pending challenge to a 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision that Longmont could not ban fracking, noting that they wanted to see if the legal situation had been changed by the 2019 passage of Senate Bill 181, which grants local governments more autonomy over fracking operations to prioritize public safety. In the meantime, they say, they can adopt new protective standards before the fracking ban expires at the end of December. “By that time, we will have amended our local regulations to be as protective as possible, the new professional COGCC [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] will have new rules in place under their protective mission, and we may have at least a preliminary answer from the courts on the ban question,” they said in their release.
But 350 Colorado believes the 2019 legislation already provided that answer, organizers said in another letter to commissioners on July 23: “Enacting a ban on fracking is now fully within the county’s expanded authority under SB 19-181, which eliminated state preemption in regulation of oil and gas activities. SB 19-181 grants counties and municipalities land-use and zoning authority over fracking operations and the authority to prioritize public health and safety in evaluating applications for permits.”
If commissioners do not have new standards in place next year, 350 Colorado is concerned about the effects on both residents and the environment. "Any additional oil and gas development would exacerbate our already serious ozone, benzene and air-quality problems, as well as the climate crisis," says Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado. "We're already getting poisoned from oil and gas; we don't need any additional poisoning."
In an op-ed published July 24 by Colorado Politics, Governor Jared Polis provided backup for the Boulder County commissioners, noting that in order to allow for the full execution of Senate Bill 181, he had compromised with oil and gas groups to drop initiatives from the 2020 ballot.
In 2014, when Polis was a U.S. Congressman representing the district that includes Boulder County, he agreed to drop two setback initiatives he'd been pushing for that November's ballot in a similar compromise with then-governor John Hickenlooper, who said in response that he would appoint a commission to make recommendations to the legislature about land-use conflicts. As a result of this deal, two industry-supported ballot measures were also pulled from the ballot. “For the first time, this puts citizens on an equal footing with industry,” Polis said in an interview with the Denver Post at the time.
The COGCC regulatory process outlined by SB 181 is continuing along that path. "When you’re making a cake, you don’t pull it out of the oven after two minutes and start randomly adding new ingredients — you follow the recipe and wait until it’s fully baked," Polis wrote in his op-ed.
In a statement to Westword, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill expanded on that thought: "The Governor indicated he would oppose ballot initiatives related to oil and gas extraction in 2020 and would work with conservation groups and industry to prevent ballot measures in 2022 from both sides. Our goal is to fully and effectively implement SB19-181 as envisioned by the sponsors and the administration to protect public health, worker and community safety, and provide a consistent regulatory framework for the state."
Protect Colorado, a political group backed by oil and gas companies, supported the governor’s compromise and agreed to drop two ballot initiatives that would have likely had enough signatures to get on the November 2020 ballot. "We will continue to work collaboratively with the Governor, General Assembly, and key stakeholders to ensure SB 181 is implemented smoothly, but we will respond if adverse measures are filed or regulations are advanced that don’t reflect a collaborative process," the group announced July 24 on its website.
Conservation Colorado, Western Colorado Alliance and League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans also supported the governor’s move, they reported in a release. "We are supportive of solving the very real challenges facing how we permit oil and gas in this state through the rulemaking process we're all engaged in," says Emily Hornback, executive director at Western Colorado Alliance. "The issues we're dealing with in the rulemaking process are very complex...and we would like to give the process a chance to work itself out."
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Like Protect Colorado, however, Hornback said that her group reserves the right to take action."We expect real solutions, and if the commission doesn't deliver real solutions, we will continue to use other tools to get the solutions that are needed," she says.
According to 350 Colorado's Parkin, Polis didn't speak with either Colorado Rising or Safe and Healthy Colorado, organizations that both supported setback initiatives on this year's ballot, before coming up with the compromise; she hopes COGCC will rapidly enact protective rules and regulations that include setbacks of at least 2,500 feet. "SB 181 passed almost a year and a half ago now, and those of us who are trying to protect our communities from fracking have seen no relief," she says. "We feel that public health, safety and the environment are not being prioritized right now [to] the degree necessary."
But other groups agree that statewide ballot initiatives related to oil and gas regulation aren't necessary right now.
Garrett Garner-Wells, communications director at Conservation Colorado, says that retracting ballot measures is the smartest economic choice during the current pandemic. "I think an expensive ballot fight wasn't where we saw the best strategy," he explains. "We're going to focus on moving forward at the professional level with COGCC. It's an opportunity to put health and safety first in the near term."