Anti-Fracking Activists Could Clamp Down on New Developments With Ballot Initiative

Anti-fracking activists behind a proposed 2018 ballot initiative will have their first public hearing at the Capitol at 2 p.m. today, January 4.

The environmental nonprofit Colorado Rising is petitioning to place a state statute — not a constitutional amendment — on the ballot that would create a 2,500-foot buffer between new oil and gas developments and a slew of occupied buildings and “vulnerable areas,” which range from playgrounds and amphitheaters to drinking-water sources and irrigation canals.

State regulations currently place minimum setback requirements for oil and gas facilities at 350 feet for outdoor activity areas like playgrounds, 500 feet from occupied buildings, and 1,000 feet from high-occupancy buildings like schools or hospitals.

“It means a lot of our children who are playing on the ball fields, track fields, have fracking really close to where they’re playing,” says Micah Parkin, a boardmember of Colorado Rising and the executive director of 350 Colorado. “Having fracking operations that are very dangerous and detrimental to public health that close to their schools and homes is completely inappropriate.”

Renewed calls for strict anti-fracking laws come on the heels of a widely publicized April 2017 home explosion in Firestone, which was caused by a severed pipeline that was mistakenly left connected to an open well, and a string of protests from Boulder County residents fighting to preserve open lands that are coming under threat from the industry.

The most high-profile and impactful fracking issue of 2017 was the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that mandated that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulatory agency, consider the protection of public health and the environment as a pre-condition to permitting. The state attorney general appealed the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.

“They’re basically trying to say they don’t have to put health and safety first,” Parkin says.

The proposed ballot measure is nearly identical to a proposed 2016 constitutional amendment that failed when activists were unable to collect enough signatures after the Colorado secretary of state invalidated tens of thousands of signatures.

The public hearing will be conducted by Legislative Council staffers and is strictly to ensure that the proposed ballot language meets statutory and constitutional requirements. After the initial review, proponents of the ballot measure can submit their proposal to the secretary of state.

Signature collection will commence after the ballot review process is completed. Volunteers will have to collect a minimum of 98,492 valid signatures, but Colorado Rising hopes to collect around 140,000 signatures to ensure that it has enough to pass muster with the secretary of state.

In the meantime, Colorado Rising is trying to rally its base and gauge support for the proposed ballot initiative through an online petition asking potential voters to pledge that they’ll sign on when the time comes.

While the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission declined to give a statement on how the measure would impact the state’s oil and gas industry, state officials in 2016 estimated that a proposed 2,500-foot buffer zone around occupied buildings and “vulnerable areas” would effectively ban any new oil and gas developments from 90 percent of non-federal land in the state.

“I haven’t seen the proposed language, so there is no official agency or department position on it,” says COGCC Executive Director Matt Lepore.

When environmental activists failed to get the proposal on the ballot nearly two years ago, the Colorado Oil & Gas Association hailed the initiative’s demise as a victory. “That sound you hear is the State of Colorado breathing a collective sigh of relief,” the group announced.

Opting for a statute initiative this time around was a strategic decision. During the 2016 presidential elections, Coloradans approved Amendment 71, a constitutional amendment intended to create roadblocks for groups hoping to amend the Colorado Constitution via direct democracy. The constitution now requires valid signatures from at least 2 percent of voters in each Senate district and then a win of at least 55 percent at the ballot box.

Not only does that require organizing volunteers and canvassing all 35 Senate districts, but it means that one state Senate district could effectively veto a constitutional amendment before it even makes it to a vote.

While state law is easier to amend than the state constitution, Colorado Rising is determined to see its ballot initiative through.

“It can feel disempowering when you can’t protect your kids or your family,” Parkin says. “We hope to empower people, to help people do something meaningful that will help protect them and their families.”
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi