Longform

How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

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One early target of the outside spending has been Polis. The wealthy Democratic congressman was often at odds with the fossil-fuels lobby even before last summer, when the arrival of a gas rig across the road from his Weld County vacation home prompted him to dub himself the "poster boy" of fracking. A few weeks ago, in response to Polis's backing of several proposed ballot measures that would substantially increase the distances new well pads would have to be set back from adjoining property, the Log Cabin Republicans unleashed a barrage of satiric ads referring to "King Jared" and "Posh Polis" and accusing him of recklessly endangering thousands of Colorado jobs. Polis has indicated he might withdraw his support for the measures if he can get some tougher rules in Hickenlooper's compromise bill — a position that hasn't placated his opponents but has angered some fractivists, who regard any concession on the issue as a sellout.

Last month an even stranger full-page attack ad began running in Front Range newspapers. It portrays the typical fractivist as a begoggled geek with a colander strapped to his head, toting a handmade sign demanding LOCAL CONTROL. The ad claims that "anti-energy activist groups reject basic science" and "can't get their facts straight" — and refers the reader to a website for more information.

The ad is the work of the recently launched Environmental Policy Alliance (EPA — get it?), an arm of the Center for Organizational Research & Education, which is the brainchild of Berman & Company, a powerhouse Washington, D.C.-based public-relations firm known for running aggressive campaigns on behalf of major corporate clients in the food, beverage, tobacco and energy industries. EPA's declared mission involves "uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups," and Colorado fractivism has become one of its principal targets.

"Colorado is really in the news," says EPA spokeswoman Anastasia Swearingen. "It's ground zero for a new wave of activism. You've got people coming in from different places, working with the grassroots groups. We are not engaging in any way on the ballot issues or any legislation; we are focused on the activists themselves."

The EPA website, BigGreenRadicals.com, portrays Colorado's activists not simply as environmental nuts, but as interlopers, so-called "local" groups launched and operated by national environmental organizations based in New York and California. Frack Free Colorado is singled out as a Trojan horse, funneling money and marching orders from groups such as Water Defense, a nonprofit founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, and Food and Water Watch. This is news to Boulder native Allison Wolff, who started FFC with two other longtime Colorado residents; she says the group did make use of two former members of Water Watch's team in the 2013 ballot campaign, but has always been locally based.

"The idea that Frack Free Colorado is not local is ridiculous," says Wolff. "In some ways, it's a compliment that we're actually getting under their skin."

Schabacker says the site's accusations that the "supposedly hyper-local group" Protect Our Loveland was merely a tool of his organization, Food and Water Watch, and other national groups are also baseless. "We provided a meager amount of assistance to the grassroots group, and it's all been publicly disclosed," he says. "They're trying to smear anyone who's not in favor of putting fracking wells next to homes and schools."

The site also described Shane Davis as a "Sierra Club operative." After Davis pointed out that, while he is a former Sierra Club volunteer, he no longer has any ties with the group, the description was changed to "'a fracking-obsessed one-man army' who peddles false claims about oil and gas development."

"Everything in this [site] is completely inaccurate," Davis says. "But they know exactly what they're doing. This is real grassroots, and that's why they're having a hell of a time trying to kick our ass. Big Greens are so cumbersome. It's like a battleship — it takes a day to turn it around. We don't have time for that. These are real people, with real boots on real concrete, kicking some real ass."

But if the Big Green label doesn't quite fit, the industry forces are doing their best to marginalize the activists as raving socialists. Their chief exhibit is the edgiest of all the proposed ballot measures, Initiative 75, sponsored by the Colorado Community Rights Network, a fractivist group whose leaders bear nostalgic-sounding names like Lotus and Merrily. The consititutional amendment declares that the people's "inherent and inalienable right to self-government" grants communities the right to enact laws defining, altering or eliminating the ability of businesses to operate there.

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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