Environmental activists have cleared the final obstacle to begin circulating a petition that could clamp down on new oil and gas developments in the state.
The Colorado Supreme Court has cleared a ballot initiative put forward by Colorado Rising for Health and Safety that would create 2,500-foot setbacks between new oil and gas operations and occupied structures. Setbacks would also apply to "vulnerable areas," which include waterways, public parks and open space, playgrounds and sports fields. Local governments could increase the setback beyond 2,500 feet if they choose to do so.
Now, organizers with Colorado Rising are out gathering signatures before the August 6 deadline to get the initiative on the November statewide ballot. Petitioners must submit 98,492 valid signatures in the next four months.
"We were pretty confident it would go this way, but we were thrilled, because it is the last legal obstacle that the oil and gas industry could throw our way, and now we're free to pursue direct democracy, collecting signatures and letting people have a vote on this," says Suzanne Spiegel, a community organizer for Colorado Rising and an official designee for the ballot initiative.
Ballot Initiative 97 was approved by the Secretary of State Title Board in mid-January, but anti-fracking activists pushing the petition faced opposition by the Colorado Alliance of Mineral Royalty Owners, which appealed the decision to the state's highest court in February. The court can only determine whether the ballot language meets state election law requirements; it can't make a judgment call on the content of the initiative. Ultimately, the setback petition was approved for circulation by the justices.
CAMRO was not immediately available for comment. But in a previous statement issued after its appeal to the state Supreme Court, CAMRO president Neil Ray said, "The title board should never have approved proposed Initiative 97, as it violates the single subject and clear title requirements. In addition, the refusal of the state of Colorado to attach an appropriate fiscal impact statement, despite information available, violates state statute. Beyond the obvious legal issues with this ill-conceived proposal, it would essentially eliminate natural gas and oil development in Colorado."
This isn't the first time that anti-fracking activists have attempted to halt oil and gas production at the ballot box. In 2016, a nearly identical petition prevailed in the Colorado Supreme Court but ultimately failed to make it onto the November ballot because it didn't have enough signatures.
Spiegel says that with more experience and time this go-around and more communities impacted by drilling activity, she's confident that 2018 will be the year Coloradans will support strict regulations on the oil and gas industry. Colorado Rising is mobilizing volunteers and is looking for office space across the state. Its home base is in Denver, and it's expected to open its next office in Boulder County.
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In April last year, a fatal explosion in Firestone killed two people and severely injured a third after a cut flowline leaked a mix of methane and propane into a home even after it was supposedly abandoned by the flowline operator at the time. Since that explosion, at least a dozen oil-and-gas-related explosions and leaks have occurred in the state.
State regulations currently place minimum setback requirements for oil and gas facilities at 350 feet for outdoor-activity areas like playgrounds, 500 feet for occupied buildings, and 1,000 feet for high-occupancy buildings like schools or hospitals. Those distances are measured from the center of the well to buildings, not to the property line. Some cities have tried (and failed) to implement fracking moratoriums after the state argued that its regulations could not be preempted by local law. With lawmakers unwilling to increase those setbacks and an ongoing Colorado Supreme Court case in which the state is arguing it should not make public health a pre-condition for drilling permits, citizens may be motivated to make their voices heard with the petition and the November vote.
"We feel we have a good chance of winning this round," Spiegel says. "We still need Coloradans to show up and to support this and to volunteer, because that's our greatest resource as a community movement."