Oil and gas industry poised to outspend fracktivists 30-1 on Boulder moratorium

When the League of Women Voters recently made an analysis of issues on the November ballot, it couldn't find a group to make the case against 2H, a proposal to extend the City of Boulder's moratorium on new oil and gas drilling for another five years. "There is no organized opposition at this time," the League wrote.

They may be late to the party, but the opposition has arrived. And so has a $110,000 check from the fracking industry, which appears prepared to outspend backers of the moratorium on a scale of around 30-1.

More so even than towns such as Longmont, Loveland, and other Front Range communities in the path of drilling rigs, Boulder has been ground zero for grassroots opposition to fracking, the widespread practice of pumping water mixed with toxic chemicals into tight shale formations to extract oil and gas. The city's current moratorium prohibits new wells within the city limits -- not that there have been any in several years -- and 2H would not only extend the ban but broaden its scope, forbidding drilling permits on city open space land as well. The moratorium is needed, backers say, in order to complete scientific studies of the possible risks to water and air quality from fracking and also to clarify "the legal authority of a home rule city to protect the health and safety of its environment and citizens."

But as noted in my June profile of Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Tisha Schuller, "The Insider," the industry has aggressively challenged local efforts to freeze out fracking, even filing a lawsuit against Longmont over its ban.

"It was an easy decision to sue -- because if you ban hydraulic fracturing, you're banning oil-and-gas development," Schuller told me. "You're saying, 'We're not going to produce this resource here; we're going to require it from somewhere else.' It's important that disconnect not become an accepted practice."

According to the latest campaign finance reports, the Yes on 2H group has thus far raised a little more than $3,600, mostly small contributions from locals and grass-roots groups. But that seems kind of puny compared to the war chest assembled by the group opposed to 2H, which calls itself Boulder Citizens for Rational Energy Decisions. The group's chief (and just about only) donor at this point? The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which chipped in $110,237 on September 24. So far, the naysayers have spent close to $17,000 on consulting services, while Yes on 2H has spent $2,800 on lawn signs, printing and such.

Boulder Citizens for Rational Energy Decisions launched a Facebook page late in August, but trying to figure out if there are any actual Boulder citizens behind it is another matter. The registered agent for the organization referred an inquiry about BCRED's cred to political consultant Sean Walsh, identified as the group's spokesman.

Walsh says it's difficult persuading citizens in Boulder, "the epicenter of the environmental movement," to embrace fracking. But he says behind BCRED is not just COGA but hundreds of small businesses in the energy industry that depend on fracking for their livelihood. "We're organizing an effort to get the facts out," he says. "There's a lot of misinformation being spread."

Since oil and gas development hasn't been a significant economic factor within the city of Boulder for decades, Walsh calls the moratorium a form of political posturing: "This is a reaction to the City of Longmont getting out ahead of them with its ban. Why is the city council binding future councils with a ban on future fracking?"

But Russell Mendell of Frack Free Colorado had this to say about COGA's hefty donation: "It's become clear that the gas industry thinks they can buy our democracy here in Boulder. Fortunately, the voting public in our city is too educated allow big oil and gas to purchase their vote...The rational approach is to wait for the results of these studies before putting public health and safety at risk."

How rational will the energy decisions get in this year's election? Stay tuned.

More from our Follow That Story archive circa January 2011: "Fracking: Gas industry pours $747 million into lobbying and Congress."

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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