Longform

How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

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"That's pretty extreme," says CRED's Haubert. "It's beyond oil and gas. It's any corporation doing business anywhere. You're going to have chambers of commerce and business roundtables drawn into that fight. That coalition is going to be very broad."

Initiative 75 has been blasted as a "takings" measure, one that prevents mineral-rights holders from making use of their property. The language of the measure is similar to that of the Lafayette ban on fracking that passed last November with 60 percent of the vote. But Lafayette City Councilwoman Merrily Mazza, the state coordinator for 75 — and who, along with her son Cliff Welmeng, has been a major organizer of the state community-rights group — says the initiative is an assertion of the rights of homeowners over those of big corporations.

"Somebody who holds mineral rights under my house can't blow up my house to get to it," she says. If a town the size of Lafayette loses just 5 percent of its housing-market value because of drilling activity, she adds, that amounts to at least an $80 million hit to local residents.

While Mazza views 75 as a powerful tool for communities under threat from extraction industries or factory farms, she rejects any suggestion that the measure would lead to impossible restrictions on other businesses as well. "City governments are totally dependent on sales taxes to function — to treat sewage, to treat water, to pave streets," she notes. "People in local communities have land uses, zoning authority. We can decide on our pot shops, liquor licenses, all of that stuff. Why is it that in the case of a very toxic industrial activity, we suddenly have no control at all?"

Davis, an enthusiastic supporter of 75, sees the community-rights movement as a logical response to the sense of powerlessness individual citizens feel about the fracking boom. "Over the past year, we realized this is not just an anti-fracking movement, it's a civil-rights movement," he says. "Our right to safety has been taken away from us. It's not that we're anti-capitalist; we're in favor of capitalism that doesn't infringe on our civil rights or our community rights. We're done playing around with the industry."

But the Front Range cities that have suspended or banned fracking have less to lose than other places that are more directly in the path of the boom, and it's not clear how the local-control proposals will play statewide. Industry forces are betting that voters care more about jobs than the fractivists' notion of civil rights. In crusading against the ballot measures as a form of economic catastrophe, the pro-fracking camp hasn't been shy about engaging in a bit of fear-mongering itself. Industry denunciations of Initiative 75, local control and the Polis-backed setbacks routinely claim that the oil and gas industry contributes nearly $30 billion a year to Colorado's economy and employs 110,000 people, but those figures are greatly inflated. They derive from a University of Colorado study that calculated the total direct, indirect, and "induced" economic impact of oil and gas activity in the state.

The 110,000 jobs figure, for example, includes not only the 5,000 people working on drilling rigs in the state but 68,000 involved in "extraction and support activities" — as well as thousands more who work in refineries, fuel distribution, and convenience stores that happen to sell gas.

The economic tremors of a vote against fracking would, it seems, be felt all the way to your local 7-Eleven.

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Last year, newly elected state representative Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins, discovered that the scientific literature on the health risks of fracking was a lot skimpier than she'd expected. A biologist by training, Ginal could find only seven national studies in peer-reviewed journals and only six studies that focused on conditions specific to Colorado. Four of those centered on Garfield County; the other two essentially derived from the same data concerning two wells in Erie.

Ginal drafted a bill proposing a study of the health effects of the big gas play unfolding across the Front Range. The bill never made it out of committee.

This year, Ginal came back to the legislature with a similar bill. This one had the backing of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and it made it out of the House with bipartisan support — only to be shelved by the Senate appropriations committee.

Ginal was baffled by the degree of opposition the bill faced. Objections came not only from industry lobbyists and their Republican allies, but from chamber of commerce types and Democrats, too. There were qualms about the modest $500,000 cost of a two-and-a-half-year study, skepticism about the methods involved, hints that the whole business was a political hot potato.

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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