Longform

How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

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The spin on the Loveland vote from both sides was predictably bellicose. "Loveland Voters Tell Extremists: Take a Hike," declared a press release from Protecting Colorado's Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, a recently formed issue committee whose spokesperson is former Denver Post reporter Karen Crummy. "Loveland Voters Choose Opportunity Over Moratorium," burbled CRED.

"Oil and Gas Industry Buys Colorado Fracking Election," responded Gary Wockner, former Colorado director of Clean Water Action, on the environmental blog EcoWatch.

For weeks, John Hickenlooper, the dear governor invoked in Wislocki's documentary, has been in discussions with lawmakers about the prospects for a special legislative session to hammer out a "compromise bill" that would address at least some of the concerns raised in the proposed ballot measures. Hickenlooper has made no secret of his displeasure with what he considers efforts to undermine the state's authority to regulate oil and gas operations; the state is suing Longmont over its 2012 ban on fracking, while COGA and other industry interests have filed lawsuits challenging the anti-fracking measures that passed last year in Fort Collins, Lafayette and Broomfield.

But industry groups have been wary of Hickenlooper's proposed compromise bill, and it seems likely that most of the backers of the citizen initiatives will be out hustling signatures on petitions regardless of what the governor can achieve. That sets the stage for a gusher of fracking-related TV and radio commercials, mailers, websites, social-media campaigns, protests and rallies in the months to come.

Expect a national spotlight on the state's frack wars, along with some superheated rhetoric as the fractivists seek to make their case about the dangers of drilling — while under heavy attack from industry front groups, portraying them as a bunch of fear-mongering, tree-hugging radicals. Assuming that some of the petition initiatives gather enough signatures in the next three weeks to make the ballot, proponents say they expect COGA and other oil and gas heavyweights to spend from $8 million to $24 million on a blitz to defeat their proposals.

"That sounds unlikely," says Jon Haubert, the spokesman for CRED. "But I think you will see a commitment from the oil and gas industry to get involved and take these measures extremely seriously."

The extreme seriousness of the opposition is another sign of how the anti-fracking effort has matured in Colorado. Dear Governor Hickenlooper may end on a sardonic note, with a frack-crazy lothario trying to despoil a virtuous maiden, but the high-stakes battle over the state's energy future is no laughing matter.

"The movement has certainly changed in the last year," says Sam Schabacker, the regional director for Food and Water Watch. "It's bigger; it's more sophisticated. It's developing into a true social movement. People are beginning to realize that, if you want to protect your property and your family from a fracking well, you have no recourse other than to go to the ballot process."

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The narrator — and, in many ways, protagonist — of Dear Governor Hickenlooper is Shane Davis, a former state park ranger who operates a blog called The Fractivist. The camera follows Davis around like a faithful pitbull as he prowls well sites, sniffs the air, inspects last fall's flood damage, rattles off figures about spills and emissions, and introduces the various short films. One segment is devoted to profiling him and his work as a self-proclaimed "data miner."

Although he has a background in biology, Davis is more of a guerrilla fighter than a dispassionate researcher. His conversation is peppered with references to "the oiligarchy" and the "gas-roots groups" that serve as apologists and fronts for the industry. He boasts about infiltrating the opposition's strategy sessions and declares, "I know who they're attacking by name and what they're spending. They can't hide anything from us." While he can hold forth at length on permitting requirements and violation records, he also has a penchant for the portentous sound bite. "Climate change was yesterday," he says. "We're in a climate crisis."

Over the past three years, Davis has become one of the most strident critics of not only the frackers, but also their regulators, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. In response to the clamor for local control, Hickenlooper routinely extols COGCC's requirements for oil and gas operators as among the toughest in the country, including strict new limits on methane emissions announced last fall. But some hardcore fractivists don't believe that fracking can be safely regulated, and even those who do point out that what's on paper doesn't necessarily translate into actual enforcement actions.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast